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Family of Late I-Drive Mogul Sues Airport Authority Sued Over Restaurants Contract

Relatives of Jesse Maali, the late International Drive gift-shop mogul, are suing the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority over a 2007 restaurants contract at Orlando International Airport, charging that airport officials steered the 15-year, $300 million deal away from them.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Orlando, the Maali family charged that a business they invested in should have won the contract to run existing and new restaurants in the airport's Airside 3 terminal in 2007, but that GOAA officials were biased against them.

Their lawsuit complaint suggests, but does not expressly charge, that the bias might have been tied to federal criminal charges that were filed against Jesse Maali in 2002, and to unsubstantiated allegations that he had ties to terrorist organizations.

Maali died of lung cancer at age 59 in 2005, shortly before he was to go on trial in federal court in Orlando, on charges of money laundering, failure to pay taxes and hiring undocumented workers. In a 2002 bail hearing, a federal prosecutor told a judge that she feared Maali might skip bail because he had &"alleged ties to Middle Eastern organizations who advocate violence.&"

That assertion and the criminal charges were never proven. The case against Maali was dropped when he died, though his gift-shop partner, Mohammed Saleem Khanani, and longtime accountant, David Portlock, were convicted of conspiracy, fraud, tax-evasion and money laundering.

Now six members of Maali's family, including his widow, Jihad, and another investor in Orlando Hometown Concessions, Tyrone W. Nabbie of Orlando, charge that their company lost the 2007 airport restaurants contract even though GOAA had reason to believe that the winning bidder, Atlanta-based Areas/Hojeij, might not have been legally qualified to bid.

Before filing the federal suit, the lawyers who now represent the Maalis and Nabbie fought with GOAA in state court for more than two years to obtain documents about the 2007 deal, which GOAA did not want to release. GOAA said the documents were exempted from disclosure by a federal law.

The lawyers finally got the records, including a memo from Deon Long, GOAA's then-legal counsel, that questioned Areas/Hojeij's qualifications to bid on the contract. Long concluded that the company's principal partner, Carol Hojeij of Atlanta, appeared to have a personal net worth that exceeded federal limits for a "Disadvantaged Business Enterprise," though her company submitted its bid as a DBE.

"It is extremely suspicious as to why our client did not receive that contract, especially since another company was deemed not to fall under the guidelines, by GOAA's own counsel, " said Mark NeJame, who's represented Orlando Hometown Concessions. "What reasonable, sane person would not think that there is something else suspicious about that?"

GOAA officials said they could not comment because they have not yet been served with the lawsuit.

The 2007 contract, like most GOAA contracts, was awarded through a proposal process, rather than as a straight dollar-amount bid. In a proposal process, the amount of money each company bids for the contract is considered, but so are other, more-subjective qualifications, such as the companies' reputations and the quality of their plans.

For the 2007 contract, three of five bidders were disqualified for not meeting all of GOAA's requirements. Orlando Hometown Concessions offered to pay GOAA at least $2.18 million a year to run the restaurants, while Areas/Hojeij offered $2.2 million.

Copyright © 2011, Orlando Sentinel
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