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

The airport's annual operating budget is $215 million. Nearly $700 million in business transactions are conducted at the airport each year, and that doesn't even count sales of airline tickets. Aviation department officials estimate MIA pumps nine billion dollars annually into the local economy. No other governmental department in Dade County makes more money.

So it should come as no surprise that commissioners have developed such an appetite for MIA's affairs. There is so much money rising from the airport it's a wonder the planes can navigate through it.

If you own a business and would like to grab a piece of that action, no matter how small, you first must be awarded a contract. Your business wants to provide fuel to the thousands of aircraft? You need a contract. Want to sell T-shirts? A contract. Croissants? Contract. You've got a van service that wants to pick up passengers at their homes and deliver them to the airport terminal? You'll need a contract.

And if you really want a contract, hire a lobbyist A preferably one who has a close relationship with a commissioner. Better still if that commissioner is a member of the community affairs committee, which oversees the airport.

Lobbying came into vogue at Miami International Airport immediately following the 1988 county commission elections. A new crop of commissioners, including Joe Gersten and Larry Hawkins, arrived with their own agendas for change. Topping the list was the airport, which had previously been unfriendly territory for lobbyists seeking business for their clients.

Immediately after the election, Aviation Director Dick Judy was targeted by Gersten and forced to resign in early 1989 amid criticisms that he misused airport funds and funneled contracts to friends. Judy had been aviation director for seventeen years, during which time he transformed the aviation department into a notoriously impenetrable fiefdom. "When he built the empire, he made sure you couldn't get inside the castle," recalls Assistant County Manager Anthony Clemente, whose duties included overseeing the aviation department from 1989 to 1991.

"Let's face the realities," Judy responds from Hong Kong, where he is working as a consultant during the construction of a new international airport. "I was called the czar of the airport because I wouldn't let any of the lobbyists or the business-interest groups interfere with the running of the airport."

Judy's departure marked the dawn of a new era at MIA. With the drawbridge at last lowered across his legendary moat and the keys to the kingdom up for grabs, commissioners dashed in and quickly immersed themselves in airport business. They opened doors that for years had been tightly shut. But in opening them, commissioners created the business equivalent of a land rush: suddenly lobbyists were everywhere. "Lobbyists were more and more involved in the process," says Clemente. "They had more influence on the system. No question."

Some commissioners strongly defend the radical changes despite the explosion of lobbyists. "I think after 1988 the aviation department became much more accountable," argues Larry Hawkins. "I think with many of the new commissioners came a sense of responsibility that when we made [airport] policy, we needed to know about it rather than be a rubber stamp."

Crucial to this desire to be involved A and exert influence A was the matter of Judy's successor. The last thing commissioners wanted was another autocratic aviation director who might lock them out. What they needed was someone who would respect their power, someone who would answer to them, not rebuff them. They found their man in Rick Elder, a deputy aviation director under Judy who was the department's liaison to the commission.

Elder, whose girlfriend worked as Hawkins's secretary, was named aviation director in 1989 after having financially contributed to and worked as a volunteer on Hawkins's successful campaign to win election to the commission. "I didn't have any input on the county manager's decision [to hire Elder], other than I think it was fairly well known that Rick was a good friend of mine," Hawkins says. Elder, he stresses, was more than qualified: "We're not talking about a schlumpf here."

Joe Gersten had cultivated his own relationship with Elder. As the commissioner principally responsible for Judy's ouster, Gersten had cleared the way for Elder's rise A a fact the commissioner would not soon let Elder forget. In 1990 for instance, Elder privately met with Gersten many times, including more than a dozen breakfast meetings at the Sheraton Hotel on Brickell Avenue, according to a review of Elder's appointment books.

Assistant County Manager Anthony Clemente attended many of the breakfast conclaves. "The meetings were in two parts," he explains. "There would be a part where I was there with them, and then there was a part where Gersten and Elder met by themselves." Clemente would brief Gersten on what airport-related matters were coming up at the next county commission meeting, usually being held later that day. Then, Clemente says, he would leave. He's not certain what Gersten and Elder would discuss by themselves, though he assumes the subjects concerned upcoming projects and other matters pending at the airport. (Neither Gersten nor Elder would comment for this story.)

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