D.M. airport considers settlement in age discrimination case

nterior of an empty courtroom with gavel and sounding block on the desk.
Courtroom and gavel (Photo by Getty Images)

Two veteran airport employees who accused Des Moines International Airport director Kevin Foley of age discrimination may be in line for a settlement with the Des Moines Airport Authority Board. 

The airport board plans to meet in special session Thursday to act on its attorney’s recommendation for a settlement with Roy Criss and Anthony Howard. The two men, both with experience in upper-level positions at the Des Moines airport, filed a lawsuit in May accusing Foley and the board of violating their civil rights by denying them higher-level airport jobs because of their ages. Airport officials declined to disclose the terms before Thursday’s meeting.

Foley declined to comment because the lawsuit is an “ongoing legal matter” and the board hasn’t voted on the settlement.

Kevin Foley is the executive director and general manager of Des Moines International Airport. (Photo courtesy of Des Moines International Airport)

In a lawsuit in Polk County District Court against Foley and the board, Criss and Howard accused Foley of allowing on the door of a vacant office a placard that read “AARP Headquarters,” a cartoon of a wrinkled man, and the message “You are older than you think.” The material was there for a couple of months, down the hall from Foley’s office, the lawsuit claims.

The cartoon featured an older, white man arranging trophies on a shelf. It also bore the message “AARP Counseling Session Sign-up,” the lawsuit contends. Someone had written Howard’s name on the top line, the lawsuit alleges. 

The suit also alleged that Foley repeatedly talked about hiring younger workers and dropping the average age of the airport workforce. Outside of hiring a new communications representative and operations director — the two positions at issue in the lawsuit — Foley had mentioned that he had hired two candidates in their 20s, Criss and Howard contended. Foley used a PowerPoint to show he had lowered the average age of airport staff members from 58 to 45.

Kayla Kovarna is communications, marketing and air service manager for Des Moines International Airport. (Photo courtesy of Des Moines International Airport)

Criss applied for the communications, marketing and air service job that went to public relations professional Kayla Kovarna. Criss didn’t get an interview. 

Howard applied to be operations director, which would have been a promotion of one slot for him at the Des Moines airport. Outside candidate Clinton Torp got the job.

Kovarna and Torp were in their 30s when they were hired, the plaintiffs said. Torp is paid $134,000 and Kovarna, $100,000.

Kovarna graduated from the University of Iowa in 2006. She had worked in staff recruiting and fundraising positions for non-profit agencies and three-and-a-half years in marketing before joining the airport in April 2019. Torp began his airport career in 2005. 

“When members of the airport’s management team questioned director Foley as to why he decided to hire an inexperienced candidate for the communications, marketing and air service development management position, director Foley responded, ‘I am going with the young bubbly one … I don’t care if she doesn’t have any air service development experience, I will train her,’” according to the lawsuit. 

At one point, Foley — who had worked with Criss from 2008 through 2013 — called Criss to tell him he would not be interviewed for the position he sought even though he had worked the job before, the lawsuit states.

Howard was among nine candidates interviewed for the operations director job, three of them internal. In a spreadsheet, Foley accused one external candidate of “looking for a place to ride out to retirement, possibly not real motivated … Looking for a place to retire,” the lawsuit alleges. Foley had ranked the oldest external candidate last in his rankings of the candidates. 

Clinton Torp is operations director for Des Moines International Airport. (Photo courtesy of Des Moines International Airport)

Howard and Criss received a right-to-sue ruling from the Iowa Civil Rights Commission on Feb. 12.

The lawsuit sought unspecified damages for emotional distress, other injuries, and lost compensation. 

After working for the Iowa Department of Transportation’s aviation department from 1999 to 2003, Criss worked in marketing and air service for the Des Moines airport from 2008 to 2013, when he was laid off. 

Howard had worked for UPS at several airports from 1990 to 2006.

Howard worked at the Des Moines airport as a project coordinator in 2007 and beginning in 2009 as property administrator before being promoted to airfield maintenance manager in 2011. He still held that position, one slot below operations director, when the lawsuit was filed.