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By Mike Hudson

Congressman John LaFalce (D-Niagara Falls) fired back this week against critics who have complained about his investigation into a proposed deal between a multinational corporation and the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority for the Niagara Falls International Airport.

"I've raised some questions and, as far as I'm concerned, they are very valid questions," LaFalce said. "You've got to make sure you don't give away the keys to the kingdom."

Under the proposed deal, Cintra, which operates airports and other enterprises in Mexico, Colombia, Spain and Canada, would lease the Niagara Falls facility for a period of 99 years.

Cintra is not yet incorporated in New York State, and LaFalce said he began asking questions about the company and the deal itself when details first became public this past January. Particularly disturbing, he said, is the fact that the company isn't required to make any commitments to Niagara Falls in exchange for what he characterized as a sweetheart deal.

"This isn't a lease, it's a sale, and Cintra isn't bound to any real set of performance standards," he said. "I never wanted to kill the deal, but I want to make sure that it's a good deal for Niagara Falls."

Thus far, probes into Cintra have not revealed who the company's principals are or where it would get the $10 million called for under the terms of the NFTA lease. These issues have national security implications, LaFalce said, since the airport is home to the Air Force's 914th Tactical Airlift Wing and the Air National Guard's 107th Air Refueling Wing.

"We need to be very clear on the nature of the legal relationship between the NFTA and the U.S. Air Force," he said. "And if Cintra comes in, what will be their relationship with the Air Force? Will they be the landlords? And if they are, is it Cintra Spain? Cintra Mexico? Nobody seems to be able to say."

LaFalce has been the major proponent of the Air Force presence in Niagara County. Currently, more than 3,000 people work at the air base, including active duty military personnel.

"I can tell you that I've talked with a number of people in the Air Force who are very pleased with the questions I've been asking," he said.

But the questions have thus far resulted in few answers, he added.

"I've received totally inconsistent and contradictory explanations," LaFalce said. "They run seven airports in Mexico, one in Colombia and one in either Peru or Mexico, but at this point we're not even sure whether the Cintra that runs the airports is the same Cintra that owns the Mexican airlines."

That corporation, Cintra S.A., is a holding company that controls Mexico's two principal airlines, AeroMexico and Mexicana. Formed in 1996 by creditors of the airlines, Cintra S.A. reportedly owns three regional carriers, an airfreight handler, ground support services and an engine maintenance company.

The Mexican government owns a 63 percent stake in the company, which is based in Mexico City. Its board of directors is made up almost entirely of Mexican government officials and bankers.

"This gets to the whole heart of the problem," LaFalce said. "If this isn't the same company, and they haven't said it is, then who are we dealing with?"

LaFalce, who said he was stunned when NFTA officials announced the lease-signing was "imminent," said the Federal Aviation Administration will not sign off on the deal until a lengthy series of questions are answered by the company.

The questions were submitted to Cintra in written form and, thus far, there has been no response, he said.

In addition to the national security concerns and questions about the company's finances and management, the FAA wants to see Cintra's business plan for the airport, as well as the actual lease agreement. Furthermore, LaFalce said he wants to know what the tax status of the company will be.

"They've already talked about buying property adjacent to the airport and I think it's important to know in advance whether that property will be taken off of the tax rolls," he said. "Are they going to make payments in lieu of taxes? Again, no one seems to be able to say."

Until the questions are answered, LaFalce said FAA approval of the deal is unlikely, and he chided the NFTA for its apparent eagerness to push the deal through.

"These are threshold questions," he said. "Either (NFTA officials) are unaware of what's going on or they are misleading the public."