A Nashville public relations firm at the center of the convention center controversy received another another big Metro contract -- put up for bids on the same day as the convention center deal, NewsChannel 5 Investigates discovered.
In that case, costs were never discussed, but the firm's ties to the mayor were definitely mentioned.
That firm -- McNeely, Pigott & Fox -- helped Dean in his 2007 run for mayor. It orchestrated his inaugural ceremonies and had a slot on the transition team that helped set up his administration.
Its motto: Do Great Work. Have Fun. Make Money.
In fact, at the exact same time the firm found a way to make money with a contract on the new convention center that had become a Dean priority, it also cashed in on fees that travelers pay to use Nashville's airport, winning a big PR and government relations contract from Metro's airport authority.
In its proposal, the firm noted that partner Mike Pigott had been a senior "adviser to the successful Karl Dean for Mayor campaign."
"This is like a big alarm going off to anybody who reads this proposal saying to them, 'Look, I have ties to the mayor of Nashville,'" tax watchdog Ben Cunningham told NewsChannel 5 chief investigative reporter Phil Williams.
But airport authority vice president Bob Watson insisted that "they were not selected in any way based on anything to do with the mayor's office."
Despite the fact that airport officials work for a board that the mayor appoints and on which the mayor holds a seat, Watson at first insisted he had no idea about McNeely Pigott & Fox's connections to Dean.
"When I was doing the selection I wasn't aware of that," he said.
"It was in their proposal, wasn't it?" Williams asked.
"Oh, I knew that they had worked with the campaign."
"So that was not a factor at all in choosing them for government relations?"
"No, not particularly."
For years, the airport's PR business had been handled by the firm Dye Van Mol & Lawrence -- which, by Watson's admission, had served the airport well.
"We were very happy with them," Watson said. "They did a good job."
In fact, after airport officials reviewed proposals from firms who wanted the job, they came up with three finalists.
Dye Van Mol & Lawrence, McNeely Pigott & Fox, and Seigenthaler Public Relations were all rated equally qualified for the job.
"They were all capable," Watson said.
"Price isn't considered in the selection process at all?" Williams asked.
"No," Watson replied.
Cunningham was appalled. "To not even consider price is crazy. I think every taxpayer in Metro Davidson County would be angry about this."
In the end, the airport picked McNeely, Pigott & Fox, they say, because an evaluation committee like an oral presentation put on by the group.
"We thought their presentation was the best, and it was the unanimous feeling of the committee," Watson said.
Among the evaluators: the airport's communications director, Emily Richard, was a former McNeely Pigott & Fox employee, who'd had just got her job a few months earlier using references from the firm.
"It reminds me of a beauty contest where you are judging a beauty contest and you know the mother of one of the contestants," Cunningham said. "That's how subjective it was."
Williams asked Watson, "Do you not see that there is an appearance of impropriety?"
"We reviewed it and did not think it was improper at all," he answered.
Not only did McNeely snag the airport's business, where Dye Van Mol had charged Metro a top rate of $190 an hour, it began billing as much as $300 an hour.
"Our agreement with McNeely is not an hourly rate so that doesn't represent anything that's accurate," Watson insisted.
Williams showed him the firm's invoices. "Here's the rate they charge, the hourly rate."
"But they bill only to the cap of their contract," the airport authority official said.
In fact, McNeely's contract does cap the firm's compensation at $30,000 a month, with the potential for another extra $40,000 a year for "special projects."
But get this: the airport leaves it up to the firm as how to get there.
"If they had a lower hourly rate, it may take them longer to get to their cap," Watson said.
Williams noted, "If their hourly rate was half as much, it would take them twice as long to get to the cap."
"Yes, but they would get there based on what we are asking them to do," Watson added.
It's a deal that not even the mayor's representative on the airport authority board questioned.
To be clear, there's no evidence that Dean or anyone else exerted any pressure to make this contract happen -- or that Dean knew about the contract.
Senior partner, Mark McNeely, says his firm is the largest in the city and should not have to pass up on competing for contracts awarded by the city just because they're friends with the mayor.
As to how the compensation received by McNeely, Pigott & Fox compares to the prior contract, the two deals are very different.
Dye Van Mol received a flat rate of $10,000 for most services, but it charged extra for advertising creative services and government relations. In general, the airport says Dye Van Mol's fees averaged about $20,000 a month, compared to McNeely's $30,000.
But we also found two months where the firm's records show it didn't do quite $30,000 dollars worth of business. Still, the airport paid them that anyway.