John Creighton, the longest-serving and best-funded port commissioner now seeking re-election, has been a staunch advocate of several minority businesses that are also campaign contributors — a relationship at the heart of a lawsuit against the Port by two former employees.

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As John W. Creighton III campaigns for re-election to the Port of Seattle Commission, he is drawing some of his largest contributions from small, minority-owned businesses that until recently were suing the Port for discrimination.

The longest-serving Port commissioner advocated for those firms to get better lease terms at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Two such firms have contributed about 15 percent of the nearly $52,000 he has raised so far, a campaign war chest more than double that of any other commission candidate.

That same relationship is at the heart of an ongoing lawsuit against the Port, brought by two former employees who claim that the commissioner ousted them to help his political donors. The Port and Creighton deny the allegations.

“I’ve been forthright that the Port is not doing enough to help small, minority- and women-owned businesses,” Creighton said in an interview, adding that the issue extends beyond the airport. “I never promise that I’m going to vote a certain way or do a certain thing because I got a campaign contribution,” he said.

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The head of the airport’s dining and retail group and another senior staffer were fired in 2015 after the discovery of emails they wrote describing a business owner in derogatory, racially charged terms. But Deanna Zachrisson and Elaine Lincoln claim there was another reason for their termination: their refusal to extend the leases of business owners who supported Creighton.

“We will ask the jury to find that Commissioner Creighton pressured Port of Seattle staff to steer valuable airport leases towards his campaign donors,” said Beth Bloom, a lawyer representing the former employees. “When he couldn’t get them to go along, he found an excuse to fire them.”

The Port of Seattle oversees Sea-Tac International Airport, a maritime business and a massive real-estate portfolio, subsidized by a $72 million property-tax levy in King County. It is governed by five commissioners who are elected by King County voters and paid the same $46,800 a year as state legislators.

Creighton and Commissioner Stephanie Bowman are up for re-election this year, while Commissioner Tom Albro will step down at the end of his term. Two candidates have filed to challenge Creighton: Ryan Calkins, a political newcomer who works for a nonprofit that helps low-income individuals start businesses; and Claudia Kauffman, a former state senator who is currently the Intergovernmental Affairs Liaison for the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe.

The deadline for declaring candidacy for elected offices in the state is Friday.

Port’s mixed record

The Port has performed well financially in recent years. It brought in a record $600 million from operations and turned a $109 million profit in 2016, helped by surging growth at the airport. The commission reached a deal in 2015 with the Port of Tacoma to combine their seaport businesses, and international shipping volumes have risen since then.

Seattle’s Port Commission has also had some high-profile stumbles. In February, the Washington State Auditor’s Office determined that the Port illegally paid employees $4.8 million in a lump sum designed to compensate them for increasing the workweek to 40 hours from 37.5. The commission also compiled a litany of grievances against Chief Executive Ted Fick, who resigned after less than three years on the job.

Creighton cited turnover among Port executives and on the commission as a decisive reason for seeking re-election. “I felt it was important to have some consistency and stability on the commission and at the Port,” he said. If Creighton is re-elected, he would be the only commissioner who has served since before 2013.

Creighton said his signature accomplishments include his support for joining forces with the Port of Tacoma, setting a goal of creating 100,000 port-related jobs in 25 years and reducing the Port’s environmental impact.

The commissioner’s financial firepower and his roster of endorsements have deterred some would-be challengers. “I gave it a real hard look,” said Herb Krohn, a transportation labor leader who ran for the commission in 2015. “He’s viewed as being a pretty good Port commissioner by a lot of people and it did not seem feasible.”

Some of Creighton’s largest campaign donations have come from his family members, including his father, John W. Creighton Jr., the former chief executive of Weyerhaeuser. He has also received the maximum allowable contribution from Alaska Airlines, the Port of Seattle Firefighters union and, notably, from small, minority-owned businesses.

Lawsuits over leases

SeaTac Bar Group, whose owners are based in Las Vegas, operates the Africa Lounge and Mountain Room in the airport. The company gave the maximum donation to Creighton’s campaign in April, as did another company with the same address and one of the same owners.

People affiliated with the firm have given $7,000 to Creighton’s campaign this cycle and more than $21,000 to his campaigns since 2009, including an unsuccessful run for Metropolitan King County Council. That is far more than the same donors have given to any other candidate in Washington state, according to state data.

Concourse Concessions, a local minority-owned business, operates Waji’s, La Pisa Café and the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf at the airport. People linked to the firm have given about $11,000 to Creighton’s campaigns since 2009 — including $1,000 this year.

The owners of these firms have appeared regularly before the commission in recent years to make their case that nonminority tenants received better rent terms and locations in the airport. In September 2012, the commission unanimously directed Port staff to negotiate new leases or extensions with existing small and minority-owned businesses that operated no more than three airport concessions. SeaTac Bar Group and Concourse Concessions met those criteria.

The Port didn’t implement the commission’s directive, however, because its lawyers determined the motion wouldn’t pass muster with the Federal Aviation Administration.

SeaTac Bar Group, Concourse Concessions and a third firm, Sun’s Inc., filed a federal lawsuit against the Port in 2014, alleging that their leases were “significantly less favorable than the lease terms offered to nonminority owned businesses.” The Port denied it had discriminated against minority-owned businesses, saying it had provided the plaintiffs financial relief “totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

In August 2015, Roderick O’Neal, a co-owner of the SeaTac Bar Group, addressed the commission and read from emails by Port staffers obtained in the lawsuit. In the correspondence, Lincoln and Zachrisson referred to O’Neal, an African American, as a “thug” and a “criminal.” They described Creighton as a “puppet” and an “idiot.”

“Thug,” O’Neal told the commission, was a nominally polite way of “using the N-word.”

 

Fired employees sue

The Port’s investigation found no evidence of racial bias, but it determined that Lincoln and Zachrisson violated its email policy. They were terminated.

In June 2016, the Port settled the lawsuit and extended the minority firms’ leases by between 13 months and five years, giving them more time to earn a return on their investment. The plaintiffs dropped their request for damages and attorney’s fees, according to the Port.

David Fukuhara, a co-owner of Concourse Concessions, said in an email that the suit was “amicably” settled and the two sides now “are working in a positive spirit.” He declined to comment on political contributions.

The owners of SeaTac Bar Group, O’Neal and Jerry Whitsett, did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Zachrisson and Lincoln acknowledged that their emails were inappropriate but denied they were racially biased.

The two sued the Port in September 2016 in King County Superior Court, alleging that Creighton played a central role in their firing.

When they refused to implement the commission’s motion extending the leases of the minority-owned businesses, the women say in their lawsuit, Creighton urged the businesses to sue the Port to gain negotiating leverage — a charge that he and the Port deny.

Creighton, who learned of emails by Zachrisson and Lincoln from the businesses suing the Port, made them public by directing a staffer to file a public-records request for their correspondence. After O’Neal’s presentation, Creighton pledged on Twitter “to clean house & work to restore our reputation.”

The commissioner then contacted a community activist about the emails, which he called “racist,” and urged him to “publicize this behavior and prevent port staff from trying to white wash it,” according to correspondence filed in court.

The Port’s investigator didn’t believe that the actions of Zachrisson and Lincoln warranted termination, and expressed concern that Creighton might have retaliated against the employees, according to portions of the investigator’s deposition filed in court.

The Port, in its legal responses, said it concluded the employees “engaged in serious misconduct warranting immediate termination pursuant to and consistent with Port policy.”

Creighton said he’s never suggested that anyone sue the Port. “That’s absolutely, categorically false,” he said. Of the retaliation claim, he said, “The facts coming out in a court of law will show that that is a completely baseless allegation.”

Though Creighton isn’t a defendant in the lawsuit, the Port hired a lawyer of his choosing to represent him for fees up to $45,000. The lawyer, Keith Scully, said he has represented Creighton regarding a subpoena for his cellphone and a deposition. The Port declined to say how much it has spent defending the lawsuit and directed a reporter to file a public-records request.

Scully and Creighton are also friends and political allies. Creighton endorsed Scully in his successful run for Shoreline City Council, and Scully has contributed to Creighton’s campaign. “I was impressed with him as a politician,” Scully said.