For­mer No. 2 of­fi­cial at Mid­way Air­port ac­cused of vi­o­lat­ing ‘cru­cial fed­eral safety pro­to­cols’

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - BY FRAN SPIELMAN, CITH HALL RE­PORTER fspiel­man@sun­times.com | @fspiel­man

A high-rank­ing of­fi­cial at Mid­way Air­port was ac­cused Thurs­day of or­der­ing a change in re­ported air­field con­di­tions from wet to dry — with­out per­son­ally ob­serv­ing those con­di­tions — at the re­quest of a “pri­vate air­line” sources iden­ti­fied as South­west Air­lines.

The ex­plo­sive al­le­ga­tion is out­lined in In­spec­tor Gen­eral Joe Fer­gu­son’s quar­terly re­port.

As al­ways, the ac­cused city em­ployee — in this case a now-for­mer deputy avi­a­tion com­mis­sioner at Mid­way — was not iden­ti­fied. Nei­ther was the air­line.

But City Hall sources iden­ti­fied the air­line mak­ing the re­quest as South­west and the now-for­mer, $112,332-a-year deputy com­mis­sioner as Costas Si­mos, the No. 2 of­fi­cial at Mid­way. Si­mos re­tired a few months ago be­fore Avi­a­tion Com­mis­sioner Jamie Rhee could act on Fer­gu­son’s rec­om­men­da­tion that Si­mos be fired.

Si­mos could not be reached for com­ment; a tele­phone list­ing in his name has been dis­con­nected.

South­west, Mid­way’s flag­ship car­rier, is­sued a state­ment deny­ing the al­le­ga­tions.

“The safety of our em­ploy­ees and cus­tomers is the un­com­pro­mis­ing pri­or­ity at South­west Air­lines and we would never put that safety at risk,” the state­ment said. “... South­west refutes any al­le­ga­tions it at­tempted to in­flu­ence or ex­ert any pres­sure on how air­field con­di­tions were recorded at Mid­way Air­port. Any im­pli­ca­tion that we would place any­thing above safety is un­founded.”

Avi­a­tion Depart­ment spokesman Matt McGrath also said the “safety and se­cu­rity of our air­ports” is the depart­ment’s “high­est pri­or­ity.

“We can con­fi­dently say it was not com­pro­mised dur­ing this spe­cific in­ci­dent. In or­der to en­sure safety, there are re­dun­dan­cies and mul­ti­ple in­puts built into the sys­tem — in­clud­ing air­port, air traf­fic con­trol, and air­line per­son­nel — and one per­son alone can­not dic­tate that planes land or take off in un­safe con­di­tions,” McGrath wrote in a state­ment.

“How­ever, CDA still took this is­sue se­ri­ously, and im­me­di­ately re­ferred it to the OIG’s of­fice when made aware of the al­le­ga­tions. In the mean­time, all Mid­way air­field per­son­nel have been re­trained, air­field man­age­ment re­spon­si­bil­i­ties have been over­hauled, and the in­di­vid­ual in­volved has since left the depart­ment.”

In the Fe­bru­ary 2018 in­ci­dent, the now­former deputy com­mis­sioner was ac­cused of dis­re­gard­ing “cru­cial fed­eral safety pro­to­cols” as well as city per­son­nel rules.

“The deputy com­mis­sioner or­dered [an] air­port op­er­a­tions su­per­vi­sor un­der the deputy com­mis­sioner’s su­per­vi­sion to change the re­ported air­field con­di­tions at [Mid­way] from ‘wet’ to ‘dry,’ de­spite the fact that as­sess­ing and re­port­ing air­field con­di­tions are the [air­field su­per­vi­sor’s] du­ties and those re­ports may only be over­rid­den on the ba­sis of per­sonal ob­ser­va­tion,” Fer­gu­son wrote.

“In this in­stance, the deputy com­mis­sioner was at home, off-duty and failed to ver­ify the ac­tual air­field con­di­tions per­son­ally or oth­er­wise. The in­ves­ti­ga­tion es­tab­lished that, prior to or­der­ing the [su­per­vi­sor] to change the con­di­tions, the deputy com­mis­sioner re­ceived a call at home from an em­ployee of a pri­vate air­line re­quest­ing that the air­field con­di­tions be changed.”

When in­ter­viewed by in­ves­ti­ga­tors, the deputy “ac­knowl­edged the air­line of­fi­cial had a fi­nan­cial mo­ti­va­tion for re­quest­ing the change in sta­tus be­cause the air­line could not in­clude as many pas­sen­gers on planes land­ing on a wet air­field … as are per­mit­ted for dry con­di­tions and the air­line would, there­fore, lose money if the air­field con­di­tions were not al­tered.”

But Si­mos was also ac­cused of ly­ing to the in­spec­tor gen­eral’s of­fice by falsely claim­ing to have ver­i­fied air­field con­di­tions by con­tact­ing a dif­fer­ent air­field su­per­vi­sor. Phone records and recorded phone calls at the Depart­ment of Avi­a­tion re­vealed no such con­ver­sa­tions.

The Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion con­ducted a “par­al­lel fed­eral safety in­ves­ti­ga­tion aris­ing from the same in­ci­dent.”

“The FAA is aware of the is­sue and we are in­ves­ti­gat­ing,” FAA spokesman Tony Moli­naro wrote in an email to the Sun-Times.

Si­mos re­tired af­ter the Depart­ment of Avi­a­tion re­ceived the in­spec­tor gen­eral’s re­port. At Fer­gu­son’s re­quest, he was placed on the do-not-re­hire list.

Em­ployee warned busi­ness of in­spec­tion

The Mid­way episode was the sec­ond-most-se­ri­ous in a quar­terly re­port dom­i­nated by a de­tailed nar­ra­tive of the al­leged po­lice coverup of the drink­ing-and-driv­ing in­ci­dent that got Chicago Po­lice Supt. Ed­die John­son fired.

Other in­ter­est­ing tid­bits:

♦ A com­pli­ance in­ves­ti­ga­tor for the city’s Depart­ment of Busi­ness Af­fairs and Con­sumer Pro­tec­tion was ac­cused of call­ing an em­ployee at a Chicago busi­ness to give warn­ing about an im­pend­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion, then ig­nor­ing the con­flict of in­ter­est by par­tic­i­pat­ing in the in­spec­tion.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tor “runs a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that re­ceived an­nual food do­na­tions from the busi­ness he in­spected” and told a col­league to “go easy” on the busi­ness be­cause of the do­na­tions, the re­port states. The ac­cused in­ves­ti­ga­tor also “gave pref­er­en­tial treat­ment to an­other busi­ness be­cause he had eaten at their restau­rant on mul­ti­ple oc­ca­sions.”

At Fer­gu­son’s be­hest, the in­spec­tor was slapped with a 29-day sus­pen­sion and or­dered to un­dergo one-on-one ethics train­ing.

♦ A deputy avi­a­tion com­mis­sioner was ac­cused of vi­o­lat­ing the city’s ethics or­di­nance by fil­ing a “fraud­u­lent” state­ment of fi­nan­cial in­ter­est that failed to disclose own­er­ship of a con­sult­ing com­pany. The deputy de­posited $48,000 in a com­pany check­ing ac­count in 2017 and over $72,000 in 2018, “re­flect­ing pay­ments from ap­prox­i­mately five dif­fer­ent client firms.” The case was re­ferred to the Board of Ethics, which is­sued a “prob­a­ble cause find­ing” that awaits re­sponse from the deputy.

SUN-TIMES FILE

A South­west Air­lines jet at Mid­way Air­port last year.

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