By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
Federal investigators, though, will have trouble determining with any certainty how the pie has been split. According to Ed Marquez, county finance director, Dade does not ask for a final accounting of each bond deal. Marquez claims the system works best when the various participants are allowed to watch over each other. "There's nothing better than self-policing," he says, "because if one firm is getting shortchanged, we'll hear about it." (While Marquez discussed the merits of self-policing this past week, a half-dozen federal agents were combing through thousands of pages of finance committee records, looking for improprieties.) Marquez, however, says he will soon join the State of Florida and Broward County in requiring such an accounting, not because he thinks it is prudent, but because of "media concerns."
"Joe Gersten fought to expose waste and corruption in county government that cost taxpayers millions. Joe Gersten exposed and corrected wrongdoing at Miami International Airport."
A Gersten campaign flyer recently mailed to District 5 voters
Immediately after his 1988 election, Gersten began examining operations at Miami International Airport. The Miami Herald at the time was investigating Aviation Director Richard Judy, and Gersten joined in, alleging various conflicts of interests and publicly criticizing Judy. Less than five months after Gersten took office, Judy resigned. "I feel bad for Mr. Judy," Gersten said after the director's departure. "I take no personal pleasure in the result. But there had to be a closer look at how the airport was run."
Along with fellow commissioner Larry Hawkins, Gersten was then instrumental in selecting Rick Elder as Judy's replacement. According to past and present MIA executives, Elder, in turn, rarely made an important decision without first seeking Gersten's approval.
His first major power play as a commissioner assured Gersten unfettered prowling rights at MIA. And his role as finance committee chairman enhanced his influence: Many of the county's major bond deals involved the airport. Those, as well as lucrative airport service contracts, were routinely reviewed by Gersten's finance committee.
But instead of exposing and correcting wrongdoing at Miami International Airport, as he claims in his campaign literature, and despite pledging to maintain one of the cleanest, most scandal-free facilities in the nation, Gersten's MIA legacy is an airport beset by federal investigations and charges of influence-peddling.
In the past month, FBI agents have served subpoenas on the county in search of aviation records relating to questionable private service contracts. Other subpoenas have sought files documenting the distribution of millions of dollars intended for airport promotion but spent on other county projects. The Federal Aviation Administration is conducting a separate investigation to determine whether the county violated agreements with the federal government by using other airport funds for expenses unrelated to MIA's operation. Several private companies and individuals doing business with the airport have received federal grand jury subpoenas, as well.
But even before the subpoenas began descending upon MIA, executive staff members had been complaining privately that lobbyists had overrun the airport following Gersten's election. In previous years, private firms would demonstrate their interest in MIA business via bids or other traditional methods. But the Gersten/Elder era marked a dramatic change: Firms now hired lobbyists to approach MIA executives, lobbyists who flaunted their ties to various commissioners. "Now it is not uncommon for the first contact we have with someone who wants to do business at the airport is through a commissioner," says one airport official who requested anonymity. "Everything is now political. Staff can't do a professional job because they are being given done deals."
Critics of the business atmosphere at MIA point to the case of Dynair, Inc. In 1992 Dynair sought a contract for ground services A such as baggage handling and ticket-counter attendants A for some of the smaller airlines. But when the company was eliminated from consideration because its bid arrived past deadline, Rick Elder found an excuse to reopen the bidding. Dynair eventually won one of the contracts.
Dynair is one of Gersten's most generous political contributors, having thus far donated at least $3000 to his current campaign. Dynair's lobbyist? Stuart Rose, Gersten's friend and a major fundraiser for the commissioner.
Another lobbyist with close ties to Gersten is Miami attorney Greg Borgognoni, whose wife, Georgia, won a 1991 contract to operate a sandwich shop at the airport. Greg Borgognoni lobbied commissioners on behalf of his wife and her partner despite the fact they had no experience in such a business. A losing bidder called the process "a farce." Disclosure forms show the Borgognonis were early contributors to Gersten's election campaign, having donated the maximum $500 each.
Other problems have plagued the airport since Gersten decided to involve himself in its operations. One of the most controversial garnered publicity last fall, when Balfour Construction was awarded a $28 million construction contract even though one of its subcontractors declared he'd been used as a "minority front" who was included simply so Balfour could qualify as a bidder. The State Attorney's Office is investigating.
The wrongdoing at Miami International Airport that Gersten claims to have exposed and corrected prompted a frustrated Commissioner Alex Penelas to lament not long ago: "Every one of these damn contracts is becoming a federal case. I just don't know why."