Wheeling village attorney says airport PR deal legal, but 'doesn't smell good'
Some Wheeling officials are questioning a public relations contract awarded in 2019 to a business partner of Chicago Executive Airport board Chairman D. Court Harris -- a move the village attorney says was legal but "doesn't smell good."
Chicago Executive board directors are to vote tonight on a contract extension for Insight PR owned by Cody Rogers. The airport's 2020-21 budget has set aside about $60,000 for the second consecutive year for Insight.
Harris, who said he's been subjected to "baseless attacks" on his character from critics, and Rogers launched another public relations firm, South Gate Strategies, about five months before Insight PR was founded in March 2019, records show. Insight started working for the airport in May 2019.
Trustee Mary Papantos raised questions about the PR contract after a Chicago Executive Pilots Association member brought up the issue during Monday night's village board meeting. The pilot, Rogers Faden, said he was following concerns raised by Wheeling resident and longtime airport critic Steve Neff.
Papantos contends there was a lack of transparency before the airport board approved the Insight PR deal because the Harris-Rogers relationship was not publicly revealed.
"I feel that it was sneaky and I do feel that we have been bamboozled," she said.
In a statement, Harris said the past year has seen tough but necessary developments to prepare the airport for the future, which has angered a small number of longtime critics more than usual. He said the airport board trusts the judgment and experience of the staff to handle vendor relationships.
"Neither I nor any board members participated in the (request for proposal) process for communications services," Harris said. "I did not provide any input on the staff recommendation and I did not vote on the contract."
Rogers said he "earned this contract for my own company on my own merits and vigorously dispute any insinuation to the contrary."
Wheeling Village Attorney James Ferolo addressed the matter during Monday's board session. He said while the contract may not have been a good idea, he doesn't find it broke any laws -- in part because he's been assured Harris hasn't received any financial benefits.
"This came to me after the fact last year and I did talk to the attorney for the airport," Ferolo said. "And it doesn't look good. It doesn't smell good. It's something that probably should have been avoided."
Chicago Executive is co-owned by Wheeling and Prospect Heights. The Wheeling board and the Prospect Heights city council get the final say on the airport's annual budget.
Rogers and Harris are former Army officers and West Point classmates. Illinois secretary of state documents list Rogers and Harris as managers of South Gate Strategies, a public relations firm formed as a limited liability company in October 2018.
State records show Rogers registered Insight PR as a limited liability company in late March 2019. Insight received the Chicago Executive contract about two months later.
Veronica Vera, who was a spokeswoman from 2017 to 2019 for former U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam, also submitted a proposal seeking the airport's public relations contract last year. Vera said Tuesday it was an "incredibly fair" process and Insight is the better consultant for the job.
Wheeling Trustee Mary Krueger and Village President Pat Horcher also voiced concern about how the airport handled the PR deal. In recent discussions with Horcher, Harris said he understood the importance of communication with the village even beyond strictly legal considerations and affirmed his commitment to do so in all future situations.