Today's Paper Arkansas News LEARNS Guide Legislature Sports Core Values Puzzles Newsletters Public Notices Archive Obits Opinion Story Ideas

As deal stalled at Little Rock Airport Commission, public-relations exec quietly sought piece of advertising contract

by Joseph Flaherty | March 5, 2023 at 8:13 a.m.
Myron Jackson (left) and Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. are shown in these 2022 file photos. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Helaine R. Williams)

A Little Rock public relations executive last year quietly pursued a partnership with a firm that was set to get an airport advertising contract as the deal appeared to be stalled at the Little Rock Municipal Airport Commission while intimating that his involvement could help secure the contract, records show.

Myron Jackson is the president and chief executive officer of The Design Group, a public relations and marketing firm based in Little Rock with close ties to Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr.

At one point, Jackson left a voicemail for the proposed advertising firm in which he cited the "concerns" of the Airport Commission surrounding the project and suggested that "we can really help each other and kind of solidify this opportunity for your organization as well as for mine."

His efforts were unsuccessful in the end. The head of the firm says she did not call Jackson back, and the Airport Commission, in a 4-2 vote, authorized a contract in July 2022 without any designated role for the Design Group.

When asked about Jackson's outreach, in a statement provided by a spokesman, airport Executive Director Bryan Malinowski said, "The airport encourages outreach and collaboration before a proposal is submitted to the airport. However, after we receive a submittal, it is inappropriate for third parties to attempt to insert themselves in a proposal in which they were not originally included."

Nevertheless, since then Jackson has sought to deepen his involvement with the state's largest airport.

On Jan. 4, he submitted an application to be appointed to the Airport Commission, the seven-member panel that oversees Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport/Adams Field.

Members are appointed by the mayor, subject to confirmation by a three-fourths majority of the Little Rock Board of Directors. The city board has yet to confirm someone to the open seat on the commission for which Jackson has applied.

"I am a small business owner, and every day I must actively pursue new relationship opportunities, as any successful business person or salesman would," Jackson said via email in response to written questions from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

"In this case, I pursued a new business relationship and attempted to leverage my experience as an airport vendor of eight years" -- he later acknowledged the Design Group was a vendor for 10 years, not eight -- "and expertise of the local marketplace. My role was as a vendor of a vendor, and I'd hoped to continue doing work for the airport. I was encouraged by Airport staff to call all the established potential RFP respondents. And that I did; if you call them and ask, there may be records of those calls and/or emails as well."

With regard to his application to join the commission, Jackson said he believed that "my past experience as a vendor gives me an advantage as a commission-candidate. Very few current commissioners have that experience."


The previous holder of the advertising concession in Little Rock typically paid the Design Group thousands of dollars per month, records show.

For 10 years starting in 2012, the concession to sell in-terminal advertising was held by Clear Channel Airports, the airport-advertising brand of Clear Channel Outdoor.

Under the airport's advertising concession with Clear Channel, the Design Group was tapped as a subcontractor because the firm was considered a disadvantaged business enterprise, or DBE.

DBEs are defined as "for-profit small business concerns where socially and economically disadvantaged individuals own at least a 51% interest and also control management and daily business operations," according to the U.S. Department of Transportation's website.

As a way to encourage fairness for disadvantaged contractors that might otherwise face discrimination on highway, transit or airport projects receiving federal assistance, the Department of Transportation requires recipients of funding to develop a DBE program.

The Airport Concession Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (ACDBE) program operates under a separate set of regulations from the general DBE program, but their overall goals are the same.

The initial agreement between the airport and Clear Channel signed in April 2012 laid out a goal for the concessionaire to rely on the goods, services or products of DBEs equal to 15% of the dollar value of the agreement.

"Clear Channel selected The Design Group as a DBE and managed the relationship, which included payments," airport spokesman Shane Carter wrote in an email. "The goal, which was based on gross revenue, remained at 15% with exception to six months in 2020 when it was decreased to 7.5% due to concerns over declining advertising revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic."

Records from Clear Channel show the firm paid the Design Group, or Design Group Marketing, a total of roughly $656,812 between 2012 and 2022.

The Design Group was not certified as a DBE in the lead-up to the Airport Commission's deal with Departure Media, according to the Arkansas Department of Transportation.

Department official Joanna P. McFadden said the Design Group is not currently certified as a DBE or ACDBE. The firm was previously DBE certified from Nov. 10, 2010, to March 28, 2012, and Sept. 15, 2015, to April 1, 2019, she said via email.

According to an April 1, 2019, letter addressed to Jackson from the Arkansas Department of Transportation, the DBE certification of Design Group Marketing, LLC was removed because of a failure to submit an annual affidavit.

"The DBE just has to be certified at the time of the contract award," McFadden wrote in response to questions regarding oversight and possible penalties when a subcontractor loses its certification. "The prime contractor is not penalized if the certification is lost during the life of the project."

Jackson told the Democrat-Gazette via email that "a DBE certification is at the desire of the business submitting for one. It is unrelated and not needed to do business as an airport vendor. Our firm did not 'lose' the status, we elected to not submit for renewal for business reasons."

A five-year contract extension between the airport and Clear Channel was signed in June 2017. But when the end of the latest advertising concession neared, Clear Channel chose not to bid.

After some earlier dialogue with Clear Channel about a contract, records show that Jackson in January 2022 sent a revised "teaming agreement" to a Clear Channel Airports official. Language in the draft agreement suggested Clear Channel would submit a proposal for an extension of the airport advertising concession in Little Rock with the Design Group as a proposed subcontractor.

Among other things, the agreement would change the Design Group's fee to 15% of all gross revenues received by Clear Channel and supersede any prior agreements between the two firms.

Emails show airport officials at one point planned to bring forward a five-year extension of the agreement with Clear Channel for adoption by the Airport Commission in March 2022. The proposed extension would have maintained the status of the Design Group and another designated DBE firm, Doyne Construction Co., as DBE partners with an increased DBE goal of 21%, records show.

Malinowski told the Democrat-Gazette that new ACDBE goals are calculated every three years, per federal regulations. The Federal Aviation Administration approved a new goal of 21% for 2022-24, he said in a statement Carter provided in response to emailed questions.

Asked about a March 2022 conference call that records show was scheduled between Malinowski, Jackson and a Clear Channel official, Malinowski said, "The parties were working toward a 5-year extension of the advertising agreement but were unable to reach a mutual agreement. Ultimately, there was no extension, and an RFP [request for proposals] was issued."

In a May 6, 2022 letter to Abdoul Kabaou, the airport's director of procurement, a Clear Channel Airports official said the firm had "opted not to submit a proposal response at this time."

The ACDBE goal of 21% of total gross sales contained in the request for proposals made the advertising concession's financial terms "commercially unfeasible," the letter said.

(Clear Channel held the advertising concession through the end of May 2022 and then worked with the airport on a month-to-month basis until the new concessionaire took over on Oct. 1, 2022, according to Carter.)


For the new concessionaire, airport officials decided to tap Departure Media, a Charleston, S.C.-based firm that had held the advertising concession prior to Clear Channel.

But when officials brought before the Airport Commission a measure to formally select Departure Media, they encountered resistance.

At one point, commissioner Bill Walker -- a Scott appointee in his first term on the commission and chairman of the lease/consultant selection committee -- sought to have the advertising concession sent out for bids again in an attempt to solicit responses from other firms.

During a June 14, 2022, meeting of the lease committee, members were informed that the airport had received two responses to its request for proposals for the advertising concession: Departure Media's proposal and Clear Channel's response that said the firm would not submit a proposal.

Kabaou noted Departure Media's DBE participation was 100% and the response had been endorsed by an airport selection committee.

Walker expressed concern with regard to the airport only receiving one bid, a fact that commissioner Tiffany Mays O'Guinn questioned, too.

Responding to a question from Walker, Kabaou said he did not know what airport officials could do differently to generate more interest if they circulated the request for proposals again, explaining that they had "pushed it hard."

Commissioner Stacy Hurst made a motion to accept the staff's recommendation, which failed for lack of a second. A decision was delayed until the following month.


It was around this time that Jackson was reaching out to Departure Media, according to Leslie Bensen, the firm's chief executive officer.

According to notes from a June 15 phone call between Jackson and a Departure Media official named Kerry Adams, Adams wrote that Jackson "is very well connected to airport staff, the local community, the ACDBE firm that currently handles maintenance, and key political players in the area. ... From his intel, he has heard talk that LIT is considering re-releasing the RFP for a chance at additional bidders/more local participation."

She added, "I think he was trying to hold back from telling me 100% of what he has heard, but insinuated that he might be able to influence the decision/prevent a re-release if he can spread word that he will be partnering with us. Clear Channel must have not placed a bid."

Bensen later provided what she said were Adams' notes to Kabaou via email, writing that Jackson had called several times, including in May 2022.

In addition to numerous other records, pursuant to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, the airport provided the email that contained those notes to the Democrat-Gazette along with three voicemails Jackson left for Departure Media.

In a voicemail on June 15, 2022, Jackson had called Adams back following a miscommunication related to his email address. He expresses hope that they can "move this project down the field and maybe have a great collaborative partnership."

He left another voicemail for Departure Media on June 27, 2022, according to a copy of the message and Adams' notes.

When the lease committee met again on July 12, 2022, with Bensen appearing via teleconference, Walker said he remained "extremely concerned" about only receiving one proposal. He also attributed his dissatisfaction to an absence of "local participation."

Walker initially made a motion to start negotiations on the contract and later bring it back for approval, which was followed by some back-and-forth discussion with the airport's legal counsel. He ultimately made a motion to reissue the request for proposals, which was approved in a 2-1 vote. Walker and O'Guinn voted yes. Hurst voted no.

In a voicemail on July 14, 2022, Jackson says he is trying to reach Bensen. He mentions his relationship with Clear Channel and the Little Rock airport.

Jackson recalls telling Adams before about "how we can be supportive of each other potentially on this business in Little Rock, but in light of some things that I've been made aware of and the concerns of the commission around this RFP project, I think we can really help each other and kind of solidify this opportunity for your organization as well as for mine."

He says he would "really love to talk with Ms. Bensen about a possible partnership" on the airport's advertising concession.

The next day, in an email to airport commissioners, Malinowski wrote that a local television station as well as Jackson had requested recordings of recent airport committee meetings.

Malinowski also provided them with a newspaper article about a $17.5 million federal jury award to an Atlanta businessman in 2010. The article said the man had claimed the city of Atlanta and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport "illegally steered a lucrative indoor advertising contract to a competitor with deep political connections."

Malinowski told commissioners that the article had been shared with him, but did not identify the source.

"Routinely, I communicate information with commissioners and staff in which I believe we can learn from other airports," Malinowski told the Democrat-Gazette when asked what message the article was meant to convey.


When the full Airport Commission met on July 26, 2022, the measure to authorize a five-year contract with Departure Media was on the agenda despite Walker's earlier motion.

Commission documents said that in addition to hiring a local sales ambassador, Departure Media intended to retain Doyne Construction Co. for display maintenance. The firm also intended to partner with Think Rubix -- a public-affairs firm connected to the mayor through his former chief of staff -- for brand strategy and community engagement work, meeting materials said.

During the meeting, Walker initiated a lengthy discussion with Malinowski and the airport's attorneys about the committee process in light of an opinion issued by legal counsel.

Attorneys had concluded that the item must be brought before the full commission and was not properly before the lease committee because of the scope of that committee's responsibilities.

A motion to authorize the airport to enter into an agreement with Departure Media eventually was approved in a 4-2 vote. Commissioners Mark Camp, Hurst, John Rutledge and Patrick Schueck voted yes. Walker and O'Guinn voted no.

"I did nothing improper, implied nothing improper, and did not communicate with any Commissioners about the status of Departure Media and the RFP," Jackson said in an email. "Now, I cannot speak to what Ms. Adams believes she heard, only what I communicated, which is that I was best suited to bring business to the airport as a local partner; and because I watched the commission meetings I was able to glean that the Commission was displeased with the number of respondents; this is public information and any citizen can access this. Additionally, I would hope that my experience and success in a previous vendor role would influence those voting on a potential vendor contract."

Walker did not respond to questions regarding Jackson and the Departure Media deal via email. He ended a call with a reporter when reached by phone at one point.

In a recent phone interview, Bensen, the head of Departure Media, said her impression of Jackson's outreach "was that it was unethical."

She said she did not call Jackson back. Bensen's rationale was that her firm did not need any additional ACDBE participation for the Little Rock contract; according to her, Departure Media is the only woman-owned airport advertising concessionaire in the country.

"I just got the impression that he -- if we did not partner with him, that the RFP process would have been halted, and I'm not sure what would've happened after that," Bensen said.

Print Headline: Applicant to panel sought airport ad deal, records show


Sponsor Content