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

Those familiar with such investigations note the quandary of successfully prosecuting corruption cases that rely heavily on proving a public official's intent, especially when hard evidence such as payoffs or kickbacks is difficult to produce. But sources familiar with the ongoing airport probe say federal authorities are steadily building their case.

No criminal indictments appear imminent, however. Although investigators have been accumulating information and interviewing potential witnesses for nearly two years, only within the last three months have they begun issuing grand jury subpoenas for county records. In fact, boxes of material requested from the airport have been sitting for weeks, waiting to be retrieved by federal agents.

That is not to say those agents haven't been busy. One evening in early March, for example, they launched an assault on county commissioners' garbage. Javier Suarez, assistant building manager for the Metro-Dade Government Center, says federal investigators made an unannounced visit to the building and gathered up all the trash bags that cleaning crews had collected that day from the wastebaskets of the commission offices.

A week later agents swarmed down on a custodian who was moving a dozen file boxes from Commissioner Joe Gersten's office to a storage area. "He didn't even make it to the elevator," Suarez recalls. "They must have been watching the offices." The agents carted away the boxes.

Indeed, among those current and former commissioners whose activities are being scrutinized by prosecutors, Gersten has figured most prominently and most publicly. The corruption investigation only came to light after it was reported last year that the individuals accused of stealing Gersten's Mercedes had been interviewed by the FBI.

Further, when Gersten's former attorney, William Richey, met with prosecutors last May to discuss a plea-bargain in the auto theft case, he was told that any deal would require Gersten's "100 percent cooperation," which, in the parlance of investigators, meant Gersten would be required to do whatever they asked, up to and including acting as an undercover informant, wearing a hidden microphone, and setting up sting operations against other commissioners, county officials, and lobbyists.

According to one knowledgeable source, such demands revealed that the investigation has not been narrowly concentrated on Gersten. "Clearly [prosecutors] think something dirty is going on down there at the commission," says the source, who requested anonymity. "That's the underlying current for why they would go so far with all this bullshit surrounding the theft of Gersten's Mercedes. They wanted to squeeze him."

Richey says his negotiations with prosecutors were cut short by Gersten's refusal to cooperate, and thus no specific plans were discussed regarding Gersten's potential role as an informant. But he agrees that the zealousness with which prosecutors have pursued the stolen-Mercedes case indicates something much larger is being developed.

Gersten and Richey have steadfastly maintained that prosecutors want to take a sworn statement from Gersten regarding the theft of his car so they can then attempt to charge him with perjury or with filing a false police report. And that, says Richey, would benefit them if federal corruption charges are later brought against Gersten. "Joe Gersten is a lawyer, he's a powerful public speaker, he's a politician, and if he were indicted on corruption charges, at his trial he would have a lot to say in his own behalf," Richey explains. "But if you can develop a strategy before you even charge him to keep him off the stand, then that's a tremendous victory. If they can get Joe Gersten charged with perjury or with filing a false police report, it would be very difficult for him to take the stand to defend himself in a federal [corruption] case, because they can impeach him [as a liar].

"That's why they are doing all this," Richey adds. "It is very complex. It is very smart. It is very well done, and my hat's off to Dick [Gregorie, one of the prosecutors investigating Gersten]. It's a great tactic."

Complex legal tactics, grand jury subpoenas for voluminous documents from Miami International Airport and the county's finance committee, federal agents interviewing witnesses and rummaging through commissioners' garbage A all of this is beginning to make many county officials uneasy, especially those who have been associated with the Dade County Aviation Department.

During the past four years, no other county agency has so captivated commissioners. And if the aviation department generally has beckoned as an enchanting treasure, its crown jewel is Miami International Airport.

MIA is like an autonomous city, and in fact its 3200 acres make it geographically larger than eleven Dade municipalities. More than 30,000 people work there every day.

It is the eighth busiest airport in the nation. One hundred airline companies use its runways for 1350 daily departures to 92 cities around the world. On any given weekday, nearly 80,000 passengers travel through its terminal. On a Saturday the number jumps to 100,000; near Christmas and Thanks-giving it climbs to 120,000.

A 260-room hotel operates inside the airport terminal, complete with swimming pool, racquetball court, sauna, and weight room, all of which are available to the public. Scattered throughout the horseshoe-shaped terminal are 29 restaurants, sixteen cocktail lounges, and dozens of shops, including hair salons, pharmacies, and a sports clothing store.

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