By Mark Gutglueck
The culture of favorable treatment and the compromising of standards that pervaded the 2019 College Admissions Scandal spilled over to taint operations at Ontario International Airport, implicating the president of the airport’s board of directors, Alan Wapner, and the man he handpicked to serve as the airport’s chief executive officer, recently unearthed public documents show.
In keeping with the nature of the criminal conspiratorial nature of the activity that felled a multitude of celebrities, blue bloods and influential titans of finance and industry who used their wealth to have their children accepted at some of the country’s most prestigious colleges and universities in exchange for bribes paid to scholastic deans and other guardians of the gates of academia, what were apparently unreported gifts and privileges that could not otherwise have been purchased at any price were for years conferred upon Wapner, ultimately in exchange for which he rewarded his benefactor with a service contract which is ultimately to be worth millions of dollars over the next decade.
Wapner and the executive director of the Ontario International Airport Authority he had installed, Atif Elkadi, are alumni of USC, the University of Southern California, which employed Scott Jacobson as its associate athletic director before sacking him in January 2020. After revelations that the scions of famous actors and wealthy businessmen or industrialists had been given athletic scholarships to USC despite having no skill, no ability and in some cases no familiarity whatsoever with the sports for which those scholarships had been provided, Jacobson and several others in the USC Athletic Department were sacked.Among the revelations of the abuse of discretion that occurred within the USC Athletic Department, one pertained to how actress Lori Loughlin and her fashion designer husband Mossimo Giannulli obtained for their daughters, Olivia Jade Gianulli and Isabella Gianulli, admission to USC by paying $500,000 in bribes to have them listed as members of the rowing team, though neither had ever previously participated in the sport. Likewise, Gamal Abdelaziz, a casino magnate, and Robert Zangrillo, a Miami developer, each paid the standard “fee” of $250,000 to get their daughters admitted into USC. In Abdelaziz’s daughter’s case, she was falsely represented as a recruit to the women’s basketball team. In that of Zangrillo’s daughter, arrangements to have someone else take her SAT tests and complete the admissions process for her were made.
Caught up in the scandal along with Jacobson were USC senior associate athletic director Ron Orr, USC athletic department chief operating officer/chief financial officer Steve Lopes, USC soccer coaches Ali Khosroshahin and Laura Janke, athletic department administrator Donna Heinel and water polo coach Jovan Vavic, all of whom were either sacked or resigned.
An internal review of the situation by USC determined that there were grounds to believe that 33 students were admitted to the college under circumstances that involved fraud or deceit. What USC characterized as a “thorough” investigation of those cases concluded that 12 of those students were not involved or could not be proved to be involved in violating the school’s admissions procedure. The remaining 21 were indeed found to have made false representations about themselves or had others do so or to have violated university policy or to have cheated or bribed their way into the student body.
Aspiring students who were not academically or athletically qualified to legitimately attend USC but who had parents wealthy enough to have the university’s standards ignored on their behalf were not the only beneficiaries of Jacobson’s willingness to suspend USC’s protocol.
In a double touch of irony, the Ontario International Airport Authority would see its own substitution of money for talent and ability lead to a similar bastardization of values as that involved in the USC Athletic Department Admissions Scandal, as a player in that debacle made his way eastward from the USC campus to the grounds of Ontario International Airport.
Alan Wapner, a member of the USC Class of 1978, fiercely self-identifies as a Trojan. Upon coming into his orbit and making his acquaintance, unless the circumstance dictates that those present already are up to speed on exactly who he is, Wapner will work into the conversation that he has been an Ontario City Councilman for the better part of three decades, that he is the president of the Ontario International Airport Authority and that he is a graduate of USC. Like hundreds of other USC alums, Wapner is a participant in the Trojan Athletic Fund, and as such was frequently in attendance at USC’s home football games at the Coliseum/United Airlines Field, where he viewed the action on the gridiron in a seating section reserved for VIPs.
More notably, documentation obtained by the Sentinel shows that Wapner was the recipient of a lagniappe arranged for him through Jacobson, the value of which cannot be quantified, that being the rare privilege of traveling with the football team on certain away games such as those vs. Notre Dame and the University of Texas during the years Jacobson was associate athletic director.
Documents obtained by the Sentinel show that Wapner flew with the football team to Austin, Texas for its September 15, 2018 game against Texas and flew with the team to South Bend, Indiana for its October 12, 2019 game against Notre Dame. The arrangements for those flights were made by Jacobson. Documents in the possession of the Sentinel show, Wapner flew with the team to Denver, Colorado for its October 2, 2021 game against Colorado. Wapner’s ability to fly with the team in 2020 and 2021, was a carryover of the rapport he had established with the USC athletic department through Jacobson.
In January 2020, upon Jacobson being booted from his position at USC, Wapner and Assistant Ontario International Airport Assistant Executive Officer Atif Elkadi, who obtained his master’s degree in communication management at USC, began casting about for a way to assist Jacobson in holding body and soul together.
Wapner and Elkadi surveyed the airport operation for a position which Jacobson could fill, but were unable to find a suitable assignment to which Jacobson was suited, one matched to his skill set and temperament, into which he could be inserted without risking some catastrophic outcome or questions being raised about such a hiring decision.
At USC, Jacobson had been involved in promoting the school’s various athletic programs. Wapner and Elkadi entertained, for a time, creating an in-house advertising arm for the airport, one that would include promoting the airport at various sporting and entertainment events and venues, something that was right up Jacobson’s alley. An obstruction to that was two of the divisions of Lamar Advertising – that pertaining to advertisement in general and its airport advertising division – had a ten-year contract related to advertising with Ontario International Airport and the Ontario International Airport Authority that had been initiated in July of 2017 and yet had seven more years to run. Lamar’s was a multidimensional advertising and promotional function. It utilized outdoor billboards and signs all across the country to bring consumer awareness to products or services or entities and it also had contracts with airports for the provision of internal advertising inside the airports or on the airport grounds or around the airports, primary features of which were kiosks, signs and electronic/video/audio displays inside the airport terminals and along the walkways to the airport’s gates. Those signs and devices pushed on consumers the gamut of items or services that the American public and particularly elements of the American public financially well off enough to travel by air might consider buying. They also created a synergy that allowed for airports in, say, Florida or Texas or Ohio or New Jersey or Illinois or New York or Virginia to remind fliers that had just landed at Ontario International Airport or who were about to catch a flight there that they existed as convenient places from which or to which they might conveniently fly in the future, in the same way that travelers walking the hallways or terminals of airports in Virginia or New York or Illinois or New Jersey or Ohio or Texas or Florida could be informed that there was an alternate airport to congested Los Angeles International Airport just 35 miles east in Southern California, that being Ontario International Airport. Moreover, the contract with Lamar provided Ontario International Airport more than just promotion and the promise of attracting more ridership. It represented revenue to the airport. Under the terms of the contract, as long as the number of fliers into and out of Ontario did not drop below those moving through the airport’s gates in 2016, Lamar was to pay the Ontario International Airport Authority 55 percent of the advertising revenue it pulled in by selling advertising space on those kiosks, signs and displays throughout the airport, with a guarantee that at a minimum the airport authority was to be paid no less than $350,000 per year.
In this way, what Wapner and Elkadi were contemplating was asking the other members of the board to abrogate the contract with Lamar, one which was not only raising Ontario International Airport’s profile on a national basis but generating revenue for it at the same time, in favor of hiring Jacobson, an unproven entity whose only prior experience consisted of coordinating the scheduling and promotion of college athletic competitions. The prospect of being able to achieve that was somewhat dubitable. Nevertheless, by the summer of 2020, Wapner began laying the groundwork for that or something similar. Just as the entire airline industry was hit with substantial downturns in ridership as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wapner began bewailing Lamar’s performance, in particular its failure to prompt more and more travelers to choose Ontario as their place of departure from Southern California or their destination when coming into the Golden State. At the same time, Wapner sought to prevent Lamar’s corporate officers from discovering that he was the source of the expressions of manufactured discontent with the advertising company. The airport authority board president, however, was unable to maintain a shroud over his militating against Lamar, as Lamar’s executives began asking airport authority executives why they were suddenly getting the cold shoulder, ostensibly over the dwindling passenger numbers at the aerodrome when the current circumstance was such that virtually every airport in the country and the world was seeing a passenger drop-off. Those airport executives responded – truthfully – that they were merely carrying forward the message that had originated with Wapner.
Ultimately, Wapner and Elkadi abandoned the concept of creating an in-house promotional/advertising capability with Jacobson as its director, thus making him an employee of the airport authority. Instead, they opted to enter into a contractual relationship with Jacobson, or rather an entity that Jacobson created. Of note is that even as Lamar was being shoved out the door, that entity – which was dubbed Fuse Advancement – had yet to come into existence.
On February 1, 2021, the Ontario International Airport Authority entered into a $96,000 annual contract with Fuse Advancement, as it was identified in the contract. According to the California Secretary of State, Fuse Advancement was not registered as a business entity until February 18, 2021, 18 days after it was first granted a contract with the airport authority.
Subsequently, on May 27, 2021, the contract with Fuse Advancement was increased to $240,500 per year.
Though both Lamar and Fuse Advancement fell under the rubric of being advertising and promotion companies and both engaged in the promotion of Ontario International Airport, there were elements of their separate functions that differed somewhat. The break with Lamar did not come off as cleanly as Wapner had hoped, and the Ontario International Airport Authority had to buy out the remaining six years of the contract with Lamar.
While the transition from Lamar to Fuse Advancement was carried through with a significant number of Ontario International Airport Authority employees and at least one of the board members not knowing about the previous relationship between Wapner and Jacobson, more and more of them have come to recognize the coup that Wapner and Elkadi, who was then the assistant executive director of the authority and is now the executive director, pulled off for Jacobson. Though none will say so publicly, a number of Ontario International Airport Authority employees feel the favoritism Wapner showed toward Jacobson was highly improper.
Wapner serves as a public official in multiple capacities, including as an Ontario city councilman, as the president of the Ontario International Airport Authority Board, as a board member of the San Bernardino County Transportation Agency, a board member of the Southern California Association of Governments and a member of the Metrolink Board of Directors. In each of those capacities, he is required to disclose his sources of income and gifts provided to him on statements of economic interest known as State of California Form 700s. In completing those forms, Wapner did not make any disclosure of the travel accommodations provided to him by USC and/or Jacobson when Jacobson was the associate athletic director, according to the City of Ontario.
An argument made when Wapner and Elkadi were seeking to jettison Lamar as the airport’s and the airport authority’s advertising provider was that Lamar was committed to advertising national brands and products and that the switch to Jacobson and Fuse Advancement would allow for a change of emphasis that would switch out the national brands in many of those promotions in favor of localized businesses.
An issue under consideration is whether the airport was benefited or harmed by the transition from Lamar to Fuse Advancement. Several people close to the circumstance were skeptical with regard to the claims that the upstart Fuse Advancement was able to better serve the airport than a company with Lamar’s track record and extensive number of existing clients. Even if, indeed, the deal worked out between Fuse Advancement and the airport authority contains advantages over the arrangement that previously existed with Lamar Advertising and there is tangible evidence to suggest Fuse Advancement offers superior service to the airport and the airport authority than did Lamar Airport Advertising, there remains a daunting question as to whether that advantage yet applies when the cost of the buyout of the Lamar Airport Advertising contract is factored in and consideration is made that the revenue Lamar Airport Advertising represented to the county was at least $350,000, income which the airport and airport authority have now abandoned.
Information and documentation obtained by the Sentinel indicates that even in the face of the substantial downturn in airline travel that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic, Lamar had met all of its contractual terms and exceeded revenue projections.
The termination of the Lamar contract in favor of the arrangement with Fuse Advancement went unremarked by the public for well over a year but has now become an issue of controversy with disclosures about Wapner having been able to obtain the virtually unheard-of privilege of traveling with the USC Football Team on the team plane to several of its away games and the apparent quid pro quo of Wapner arranging for Fuse Advancement’s contract in the aftermath of Jacobson’s downfall as a consequence of the Admissions Scandal.
The Sentinel sought from Wapner his input with regard to the contretemps that is now roiling in the aftermath of those revelations.
The Sentinel asked if it was his position that Lamar had failed to live up to the contract it had entered into with the airport authority in 2017 and, if so, whether he could marshal documentation to that effect. Wapner did not respond.
Nor did he offer any clarification as to what, precisely, had been the driving force behind the termination of the contract with Lamar Airport Advertising.
Wapner further sidestepped direct questions into what about Fuse Advancement and its potential justified entering into a contract with it to the exclusion of Lamar Advertising, why the airport authority terminated the contract with Lamar to take up with Fuse Advancement and whether he could produce empirical data to demonstrate that Ontario International Airport and the Ontario International Airport Authority have been better served by Fuse Advancement than by Lamar Advertising.
The Sentinel asked if Fuse Advancement has produced more advertising revenue to the airport authority than Lamar over similar durations and whether, after adjusting for rising flight numbers that have generally taken place throughout the airline industry as a consequence of the general recovery from the pandemic in the last year-and-a-half, he could cite statistics that Fuse Advancement has outperformed Lamar Airport Advertising. The Sentinel sought from Wapner whether there was statistical indication that Fuse Advancement succeeded in attracting greater ridership to Ontario International Airport than did Lamar.
Wapner, who was peppered with those questions in writing at mid-day on Thursday September 8, had not responded by the Sentinel’s deadline on Friday, September 9.
Wapner is largely credited and hailed for the role of prime mover he assumed in leading the City of Ontario in its effort to liberate Ontario Airport from the City of Los Angeles and its corporate entity, Los Angeles World Airports, after the megalopolis to the west had, pursuant to a joint powers agreement, took over management of the airport in 1967 and ownership of the aerodrome in 1985. Los Angeles maintained possession of the airport for 30 years, surrendering the facility back to Ontario after an aggressive four-year campaign led by Wapner, who charged the larger city and its officials of purposefully mismanaging Ontario Airport to increase ridership at Los Angeles International Airport.
This success has garnered for Wapner, at least in some circles, a reputation as an intrepid and forthright advocate for the Ontario community and his constituents, who was looking to restore the integrity of and local control over a public asset that is the central component of the Inland Empire’s economic engine.
Countervailing that, however, are the contentions of some that Wapner is not a dedicated public servant looking after the best interests of the collective but rather someone who is angling for his own personal aggrandizement, ego gratification and personal advancement and to benefit his associates and political backers, those who are willing to engage in a pay-to-play, cronyistic ethos. According to them, Wapner militated on behalf of Fuse Advancement not on the basis of that company’s superior service but simply because of his relationship with Jacobson. Viewed in this frame of reference, the perquisites that were provided to Wapner by Jacobson when he was acting in his capacity as assistant athletic director at USC – in particular the extension of the privilege of flying on the team plane to several away games over the last several years – constituted gifts that were not properly reported and which, in the light of the favorable treatment Wapner as president of the airport authority arranged for Fuse Advancement, stand as quid pro quos – bribes in plain terms. In addition, Elkadi, who was promoted earlier this year to replace Mark Thorpe, the airport’s previous executive director, is a USC graduate. It is alleged Elkadi abetted Wapner in the move to terminate Lamar and bring in Fuse Advancement in its stead. Under the present circumstance, in which USC grads Wapner and Elkadi hold the top elected leader and top staff positions at the airport authority and Jacobson has assumed the role as the airport’s chief publicist, promoter and head of communications, previous whispers that under Wapner’s leadership of the airport authority the “USC Mafia” has seized control of Ontario International Airport have intensified into a deafening cacophony. An offshoot of that accusation is that, as is often typical of such cronyistic circumstances, Wapner has substituted friendship for competence such that the airport is now being run by people who are valued for their loyalty to him rather than their ability to manage. The Sentinel’s offer to Wapner to provide a cogent refutation of those perceptions was not taken up.
Elkadi, nonetheless, rose to the challenge of defending the airport authority’s contractual arrangement with Fuse Advancement.
“The Ontario International Airport Authority has more than doubled its in-terminal airport advertising revenue with Fuse Advancement since early 2021 versus comparable timeframes using Lamar Advertising,” Elkadi said.
Elkadi suggested it was the employees of the airport and the airport authority who initiated the termination of the Lamar Advertising contract for the internal portion of the airport, rather than Wapner.
“In 2020, the Ontario International Airport Authority staff felt that Ontario International Airport Authority’s share of in-terminal ad revenue over the years should have been higher,” Elkadi said. “The Ontario International Airport Authority therefore exercised an early termination provision in Lamar’s in-terminal advertising contract, and reimbursed Lamar for unamortized capital expenditures per contract terms. Those expenditures were for new in-terminal digital ad screens that Lamar installed. The Ontario International Airport Authority still uses those digital ad screens and will continue to do so for many years.”
Elkadi clarified that “The Ontario International Airport Authority does not have any current agreement with Lamar for in-terminal advertising. It does have another agreement with a separate Lamar division for outside-the-airport advertising.”
The transition to Fuse Advancement represents a significant advantage to the airport, the airport authority, the City of Ontario and its residents, Elkadi insisted.
“Since exclusively retaining Fuse Advancement for in-terminal advertising in about March 2021, the Ontario International Airport Authority has seen its in-airport ad revenue more than double compared to pre-pandemic timeframes under Lamar.” Elkadi said. “Fuse has significantly increased the number of Ontario International Airport Authority’s in-terminal advertising partners, which has resulted in the substantial improvement in public revenues from such advertising.”