Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport suspended its former chief and its former head planner in November to investigate what the airport’s general aviation services provider called a leak of company secrets, a federal lawsuit says.
Signature Flight Support, which handles a variety of airfield services including fuel sales, thinks a former top Signature official in Roanoke gave internal company figures and reports to airport officials in violation of a non-disclosure agreement, according to the suit. Then, the suit says, airport officials made the information public in a solicitation for bids.
Signature has sued only its former Roanoke station manager, Catherine Carroll, on seven civil counts including misappropriation of trade secrets. But the commission that owns and operates the airport placed airport executive director Tim Bradshaw and director of planning and engineering Richard Osborne on paid leave Nov. 23 in connection with the incident, according to a letter from an airport attorney found in the case file. To explain the suspensions, the commission has so far said publicly only that it needed to investigate a serious allegation involving Bradshaw and Osborne.
Fifty days after they went on leave, Bradshaw and Osborne resigned and the airport is now looking for new top officials. Neither has commented publicly. Bradshaw did not respond to a request for comment Friday and Osborne could not be reached.
Signature Flight Support said it or “legacy” companies have provided aviation services at the Roanoke airport since 1958. Late last year, the airport solicited bids from parties interested in providing the service because Signature’s lease was due to expire in November 2021. Florida-based Signature prepared to bid for the opportunity and remain the fixed-base operator, its suit said.
On Nov. 13, Signature officials discovered that company trade secrets had been placed in the public domain by airport officials in connection with the solicitation, their legal action said. A tense scene unfolded as alarmed Signature officials asked early that afternoon for the information to be taken down and waited, until evening, for airport officials to do so. By then, the lawsuit says, confidential information about Signature’s Roanoke operations, including financial results, an estimate of company profits and customer names, had been before the public, including competitors, for hours.
A few days later, Signature officials turned to airport officials to find the source of the escaped company secrets and to get help in responding to the matter and preventing another release, according to the case. “This Information was not provided by Signature, and we do not know how it was made available to the Airport,” Signature wrote in a letter to the airport that’s included in the case file.
Signature said that at the time it suspected an employee, former employer or cyber hackers. It also said it would file an open records request to get the information it needed from airport officials.
An airport attorney later notified Signature that the airport commission had suspended Bradshaw and Osborne “while an investigation is conducted,” according to an email in the case file. The solicitation for bids was called off.
Responding to Signature’s open records request, airport officials later released an email exchange between Bradshaw and Osborne, described in the lawsuit as a “smoking gun,” that seemed to show that Carroll, who had been terminated in September, was involved.
Carroll has asked the federal court to dismiss the Dec. 10 lawsuit against her.
In the email, Bradshaw and Osborne appear to dismiss Signature’s concerns. Osborne stated his disagreement with the company’s claim that the incident damaged its reputation and put it at a disadvantage. “Signature was at an advantage from the beginning — this levels the playing field,” he said in the exchange.
“We didn’t do anything illegal or unethical,” Bradshaw said in the email exchange, before asking whether Osborne had spoken to Carroll. “I just want to make sure that she doesn’t get a surprise phone call. We’re not going to disclose where the information came from,” Bradshaw wrote.
According to the email, Osborne replied: “I have not spoken to her but I will reach out to her later today.”