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San Bernardino airport's new baggage tag code -- FBI?

September 27, 2011 |  2:03 pm

San Bernardino International Airport

The years-in-the-making grand plan to convert the shuttered Norton Air Force Base into the grandly named San Bernardino International Airport, a hub of commercial flight, is now more than an expensive and protracted affair. It's a federal criminal investigation.

The FBI has swept up phones, computers and documents from sundry airport agency and development offices and from what the San Bernardino Sun calls the rented gated mansion of airport developer Scot Spencer.

All of this comes on the heels of a stinging San Bernardino County grand jury report raising questions about the kinds of insider shortcuts and wink-and-nudge deals that seem so tiresomely commonplace with these big ambitious plans.

In 2007, officials said they were negotiating with four airlines for regular passenger service.

So, booked your flight out of San Bernardino International yet? Or Palmdale Airport, for that matter? That was once supposed to be the airport of L.A.’s future.

How many of these big public-private deals are plausible and well-thought-out manifestations of American can-do spirit, and how many are development iterations of "The Music Man" --  some CEO version of Professor Harold Hill blowing into town with big talk and shiny equipment and promising the moon [or maybe shuttle flights to it] and taking the credulous townsfolk for all they’ve got?

The grand jury report pointed out that the airport authority had "solicited proposals for a nationally recognized airport management company to operate the airport, but no responses were received."

So who ended up in charge of development? Scot Spencer. He’s got "nationally recognized airport management" experience, all right: He was president of Braniff III airlines, formed out of the remains of the original defunct Braniff line. Braniff III stopped flying nearly 20 years ago, and Spencer went to prison for more than four years for bankruptcy fraud and conspiracy to commit bankruptcy fraud.

The federal government banned him from the aviation business, a matter of public record, but here was Spencer in the thick of things at San Bernardino International Airport, telling The Times in 2007 that he was in "the real estate business, not the aviation business." To quote the grand jury, "Mr. Spencer’s activities at SBIAA are in direct violation of the DOT order, which states he should be ‘banned from the aviation industry.' "

How much clearer could it be? Not clear enough, it seems. If Scot Spencer had stolen a piece of luggage from an airport baggage carousel, he could never even get hired as a skycap. Yet Spencer, who had a hand in tanking an entire airline, still gets work developing SBIA.

People who fail at the top seem to fail upward. In the upper reaches of American business, no screw-up appears to go unrewarded, as Wall Street’s personnel recycling policies reveal. The book "Money for Nothing: How the Failure of Corporate Boards Is Ruining American Business and Costing Us Trillions" lays out the self-serving practices of buyouts and mergers and corporate nepotism that accomplish nothing but enrich the people who dreamed them up.

Over on the public side of things, I wonder whether officials’ critical faculties sometimes fail them when these huge development projects come along. Maybe they get starry-eyed, imagining themselves cutting a ribbon to a gleaming new airport terminal, or sitting in the owner’s skybox at a new sports stadium.  

It’s not as glamorous to put money into fixing up a water treatment plant, to replace energy-gobbling park lights with energy-saving ones, or tear out an asphalt schoolyard to put in grass -– not the stuff of Kodak moments or press coverage.

The air base closed in 1994 and took a big chunk of the local economy with it. Since then some big companies have opened distribution centers there -- but nothing to match the allure of the promised airport operations. San Bernardino folk trying to figure what’s become of some of their taxpayer dollars might wind up looking up, up and away.

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Photo: Sgt. Maj. John Isberter entertains daughter Erin, 2, in a hangar at the Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

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