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

These meetings were not widely publicized. In fact, former commissioner Jorge Valdes, who was then chairman of the community affairs committee overseeing the airport, was unaware of them. "I didn't know about these private meetings," Valdes says today. "Did they really meet that often?"

Gersten certainly wasn't alone in spending quality time with Elder. When Valdes lost his commission seat to Alex Penelas in September 1990, Penelas took charge of the community affairs committee and immediately began meeting privately with Elder. "The Saturday after my election I was out at the airport being briefed by Rick Elder and members of his staff," Penelas recalls. "We had a very, very close relationship, really to the point of meeting every week to go over items and go through the committee agenda. And that really has continued now. I need to have a lot of time with these people because I chair the committee. I'm the chairman, I set the agenda."

Commissioner Arthur Teele was elected in 1990 as well, and he, too, joined the community affairs committee. Like Gersten and Penelas, he met regularly with Elder. The entries marked on Elder's calendar for January 30, 1991, were typical: 8:30 a.m. Gersten; 2:00 p.m. Teele; 3:30 p.m. Penelas.

"It's the old saying, 'Knowledge is power,'" observes Assistant County Manager Clemente. "There was some power politics and some one-upmanship going on. They were out to know as much as they could on various issues. It became like a vicious circle. Each wanted to know more than the other."

For what purpose Clemente won't speculate. But one thing is clear: when commissioners meet privately with a department head, or any other county employee, they are treading at the edge of the law. According to the Dade County Code (the laws governing the conduct of county business), "The Board [of County Commissioners] and its members shall deal with the administrative service solely through the manager, and neither the Board nor any members thereof shall give orders to any subordinates of the manager, either publicly or privately." Any violation by a commissioner, the code continues, "shall be grounds for his removal from office by an action brought in the Circuit Court by the State Attorney of this county."

Why would these new commissioners risk violation of the law by becoming so intimately involved in airport administration? One reason may be that they felt they could act with impunity. A spokesman for the State Attorney's Office says that, to the best of his knowledge, no Dade commissioner has ever been formally accused of interfering with the work of county employees.

Anthony Clemente offers another explanation: "Remember in 1989 the new commissioners came in with the criticism that county government was not responsive. So when Joe Citizen comes in wanting funding for some event or an ordinance passed, all he has to do is walk into a commissioner's office, talk to him for ten minutes, and if the commissioner agrees, all he has to do is get a resolution drafted and it's on the agenda in two weeks. The public demanded the commissioners become more responsive."

But it wasn't only Joe Citizen finding his way into commissioners' offices. Businesspeople, along with their lobbyists, began trooping to the Metro-Dade Government Center's second floor like never before. And they were looking for deals, especially deals that could tap them into the county's biggest flow of cash: Miami International Airport.

The two MIA business contracts described below are among those being examined by investigators. No one involved in the transactions has been accused of wrongdoing, and no evidence of illegal activity has been made public by law enforcement officials. But they illustrate a pattern of behavior that has prompted the federal probe.

More than 2.5 million gallons of aviation fuel are pumped into aircraft every day at MIA. In 1991 the majority of that fuel was being transferred through a series of tanks (known as a "fuel farm") owned and operated by Pan American World Airways. The airline, however, went bankrupt in December of that year. Loss of Pan Am's storage facilities could have wreaked havoc at the airport, but not a drop of fuel was affected because all of Pan Am's fuel-farm employees immediately went to work for a company called Air Terminaling, Inc.

Aviation Director Rick Elder made the decision to turn over the fuel-farm operations to Air Terminaling, a newly formed subsidiary of International Recovery Corporation, a Miami-based company that also owns Advance Petroleum and World Fuel Services of Florida. The president and chairman of the board of Advance Petroleum and World Fuel, both of which provide fuel to the airport, is a man named Phillip Bradley. Bradley is a member of the board of directors of International Recovery, and as such has lobbied on behalf of Air Terminaling before the county commission's community affairs committee.

Bradley is also a friend of Elder. "Phil had mentioned to me that he knew Rick and that Rick and he were friends," recalls Rich Raymond, an aviation department engineer who is overseeing the selection of a permanent fuel-farm manager. Elder has stayed at Bradley's condominium on Key Largo. "I thought it was a nice gesture," Bradley says of the night he allowed Elder to use his condo. "We were casual acquaintances. I had no relationship with Rick Elder."

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