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Airport officials accused of bias against Ontario International

Airport officials accused of bias against Ontario International
Ontario is using remarks by Los Angeles airport officials to support a motion requesting that Los Angeles be ordered to relinquish control of the LA/Ontario International, which it began running in 1967. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

A Riverside County congressman on Monday said he was offended by comments attributed in a lawsuit to a top Los Angeles airport official, who made insulting remarks about people living in the Inland Empire and their attempt to take control of LA/Ontario International Airport.

If the quotes in the lawsuit are accurate, Steve Martin, chief operating officer of Los Angeles World Airports, "should be terminated immediately," Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona) said.

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Court records filed Friday in Ontario's lawsuit to regain control of the airport stated that Martin once dubbed the Inland Empire, the eastern Southern California region that includes Ontario and the rest of Riverside and San Bernardino counties, as the "inbred Inland Empire."

According to the documents, Martin also referred to improvements that Los Angeles airport officials were making at Ontario International as "a storied tale of charity toward the Inland Empire."

Los Angeles officials on Monday did not deny that Martin made the comments but insisted they were deliberately taken out of context.

Ontario is using remarks by Martin and other officials to support a motion requesting that Riverside County Superior Court Judge Gloria Connor Trask order Los Angeles to relinquish control of the Ontario airport, which it began running in 1967.

The city's attorneys allege that Los Angeles violated both an agreement with Ontario to do its best to increase airline service and a 2006 court settlement requiring the airport agency to try to spread the growth in air traffic to other airports, not just Los Angeles International.

They say that mismanagement and deliberate neglect by LAWA caused Ontario International's passenger volume to plummet from 7.2 million a year to less than 4 million last year. LAWA has said the decline was caused by the recent recession and structural changes in the airline business.

Los Angeles airport officials defended Martin, saying his statements and those of others at the airport agency were used by Ontario in ways that are extremely misleading.

"This is disappointing, but not surprising that the plaintiffs have taken the most incendiary comments and put them in the case file and placed them in the media," said Gina Marie Lindsey, the airport department's executive director. "We have a judicial system that relies on the totality of the facts in disputed issues, not isolated sound bites based on an email or two."

Citing Martin's sworn deposition, Los Angeles airport officials said his statement about the "inbred Inland Empire" was only directed at a reporter whom he felt had written inaccurate and unbalanced stories about the battle over control of Ontario International.

During an email exchange on April 16, 2013, an airport consultant sent Martin a message asking, "I thought reporters were supposed to be objective?" Martin answered, "Not in the inbred Inland Empire."

When asked in a lawsuit deposition what he meant by the remark, Martin said he was referring to what he thought was one-sided reporting based solely on Inland Empire sources.

"I meant that the reporting is inbred," he stated.

Lindsey also disputed the remarks of Mark Thorpe, a former Los Angeles airport marketing director, who was quoted in the suit saying he was told by her to focus more on LAX and less on Ontario International.

"I have no recollection of anything like that," Lindsey said. "He was supposed to continue on with Ontario but expand his portfolio to include international routes to LAX, which he had not been doing previously. I would not have told Mark anything like that. We did not want anyone to reduce air service at Ontario."

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Calvert said he was concerned that Martin's statements and other remarks contained in court records reflect the attitudes and biases that high-ranking Los Angeles officials have against Ontario International.

They "make it crystal clear that they do not have the best interest of the Inland Empire in mind," Calvert said. "The court filings demonstrate that the city of Los Angeles is running the Ontario airport like a slumlord."

Twitter: @LADeadline16

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