Is This Any Way to Run an Airport?

After years of flying first class, politicos and lobbyists are now having their baggage inspected -- by federal agents

By all accounts, Joaquin Avi*o and Rick Elder never worked well together. The county manager had always resented the way Elder, as Dade County aviation director, insisted on working outside the normal chain of command. Avi*o didn't mind a certain degree of independence among his key employees, but he was the boss, the undisputed overlord of the three-billion-dollar enterprise that is Metro-Dade government. All county departments answered to his office. And he had a staff of highly paid assistant managers assigned to supervise individual department heads.

Elder, though, was different. Almost from the day he had been appointed to take over the immense aviation department, Elder refused to adhere to protocol. Instead of consulting with the manager's office, he dealt almost exclusively with elected county commissioners. He responded directly to their inquiries, catered to their needs, met with them privately, established his own special lines of communication with them. As far as Elder was concerned, it seemed, Joaquin Avi*o was barely relevant to the operation of the aviation department, in particular to its most important asset: Miami International Airport.

Avi*o, however, waited patiently. He had the authority to fire Elder at any time, but to do so while the aviation director enjoyed support among a majority of commissioners would be politically dangerous. So he would bide his time until Elder slipped up or otherwise exhausted the protection offered by his patrons on the commission.

It took nearly four years, but Avi*o's day finally arrived this past January 26, when Elder suffered the most humiliating defeat of his career. Over Elder's heated and vehement objections, the county commission had voted to approve American Airlines's long-sought plans for an ambitious expansion at the airport. Elder was no match for the corporate giant, with its phalanx of lobbyists, its alluring promise of new jobs, and the unspoken threat of political retribution should it be denied.

Only Elder's old friend, Commissioner Larry Hawkins, voted in favor of the aviation director's version of the expansion plan. After the vote, Mayor Steve Clark unexpectedly brought back to the podium Ted Tedesco, one of American's vice presidents. Clark then asked the executive if he felt his company, after months of contentious negotiations with Elder, could still work with the aviation director. Tedesco bluntly replied no. Elder's fate was sealed. Power politics had been the rule at Miami International Airport since Elder took over in 1989. And in the end, power politics finished him.

The next day, January 27, Elder rode the elevator to the 29th floor of the Metro-Dade Government Center. He had a 3:30 p.m. appointment with Joaquin Avi*o, and he had come prepared: he brought along his personal attorney, Barry Blaxberg. Avi*o was caught off guard, but he responded quickly, and in kind. He called down to the county attorney's office and had them send up a lawyer to sit by his side.

The men met for about an hour, but the atmosphere grew heated and tense. So the two groups separated, no longer willing to talk face-to-face. Elder and Blaxberg moved to a nearby conference room, while 40 feet away Avi*o and his county attorney plotted their strategy from the manager's office.

Ferrying messages between the two rooms was Gary Dellapa, the assistant county manager who, nominally at least, was Elder's supervisor. "Rick was upset," Dellapa recalls. "It was a pretty emotional time given what had just happened with the commission vote on American. Rick knew he was in a difficult position." The negotiations dragged on for five long hours before a settlement was finally reached. Elder would resign as director of the aviation department, but he would stay on the payroll through May as executive director of the county's World Trade Center. His salary, which Avi*o had not raised in three years, would remain unchanged until his departure: $95,000. Gary Dellapa was named acting aviation director. For the patient Avi*o, it was payback time.

The general public might be forgiven for thinking this episode was nothing more than an insignificant mutation of the vast county bureaucracy. After all, the incident didn't garner banner headlines the next day. And for some people working within county government, it may have seemed that Elder's resignation would bring a quick end to the unwanted turbulence that had been buffeting the aviation department, especially Miami International Airport, which had been beset by minor scandals in recent years.

But others knew that would not be true.
Dark clouds have been forming over MIA, and more tumult is inevitable. Information gathered over the past several months indicates that the Dade County Aviation Department A with its lucrative outside contracts and its multimillion-dollar bond deals A is at the center of a far-reaching criminal investigation that threatens to engulf county government.

State and federal prosecutors, working together with FBI agents and specially assigned detectives from the Metro-Dade Police Department, have been exploring allegations of corruption and collecting evidence that county officials, including commissioners, may have illegally steered airport-related business to friends, political cronies, and campaign contributors; and that individual commissioners have exerted improper influence over decisions made by the county's professional staff.

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