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

Rick Elder ordered the change. "I received a call from Mr. Elder and was told to change it so that the people who were in the business of gifts could also qualify," recalls airport staffer John Van Wezel, who drafted the management agreement for the aviation department.

With the new qualifications in place, the proposed contract was advertised in late 1991. Within a few months, the aviation department received bids from three qualified companies:

* Benjamin Books, a 100-percent minority-owned firm that had been in business for more than twenty years and operates newsstands in eleven airports around the nation, including New York's La Guardia and Dulles in Washington, D.C.

* Terminal Newsstands, Inc., which had been running the newsstand operations at Miami International Airport for more than two decades and whose parent company, ARA, is one of the largest distributors of magazines and books in the world.

* Sirgany/Century, a newly created Sirgany Enterprises subsidiary formed exclusively to bid on the newsstand agreement. The new company represented a partnership between Sirgany and Sergio Pino, president of Century Plumbing Wholesale. Pino at that time was also president of the powerful Latin Builder's Association and a major campaign contributor to several commissioners, including Gersten, Penelas, and Hawkins.

A selection committee, composed of professional staff from the airport and other county departments, spent several weeks reviewing written proposals from the three companies and hearing oral presentations from each bidder. The committee concluded that any of the firms could manage the contract, but it found Benjamin Books would do the best job, followed closely by Terminal Newsstands. Based on a point system the committee had established, Sirgany/Century finished a distant third.

Next the committee took into consideration how much money each company sought as a flat fee to run the airport newsstands. Benjamin Books wanted the most A $375,000 annually. Sirgany/Century was next, asking for $300,000. The lowest bid came from Terminal Newsstands, which requested $198,000.

After weighing the costs and the abilities of each company, the committee decided in favor of the existing operator, Terminal Newsstands. In a report dated March 6, 1992, the selection committee wrote: "Although the committee was very favorably impressed with Benjamin Books as being ranked highest in quality, it determined that the much lower monetary proposal of Terminal Newsstands outweighed the difference in the quality ranking of these two proposers."

Normally the county manager would promptly forward such a recommendation to commissioners for their consideration. However, Joaquin Avi*o refused to do so. Instead, according to his appointment calendar, he met privately with Sirgany president Raymond Kayal, Sergio Pino, and Sirgany's lobbyist Christopher Korge to discuss the selection committee's choice. Following that meeting in early April, Avi*o asked the selection committee to reconsider its decision. The committee met again and reaffirmed its choice of Terminal Newsstands. (Avi*o did not return repeated messages for comment.)

Three more months passed before Avi*o finally sent the selection committee's recommendation to the commission for consideration at its October 13, 1992 meeting. But Avi*o, who earns $150,000 per year to make decisions and advise the commission, would do neither in this case. He told commissioners he had no opinion about the proposed agreement or which company should get it.

Avi*o may have declined to offer an opinion, but lobbyist Korge was not so reticent. Earlier Korge had met privately with most of the commissioners to lobby for Sirgany/Century. Now at this decisive meeting he spoke publicly A and solemnly. "The question," he intoned, "is what is in the best interest of the county." Korge also urged commissioners to consider the amount of money each company estimated it could return to the county as profit. By that measure, Sirgany/Century's estimate for the first year of operation was second only to Benjamin Books and nearly $700,000 higher than Terminal Newsstands.

Several airport officials, including Elder, rose to warn commissioners that it was dangerous to base a decision on such estimates due to their speculative nature. But commissioners rejected their professional staff's advice. Commissioner Alex Penelas led the debate by repeatedly asking questions that emphasized Sirgany/Century's high profit estimate (though curiously ignoring Benjamin Books's even higher estimate). "What I think I established," Korge concluded, "is that Sirgany/Century would produce approximately a $670,000 higher net operating income return to the county.

"It's a close call," Penelas hedged. "Sirgany/Century is a local company. I'll move them." Commissioner Hawkins immediately seconded the motion, as did Commissioner Mary Collins, who reiterated Penelas's point that Sirgany was a local company.

Were commissioners about to award the contract based on a special consideration that was not part of the process? County Attorney Robert Ginsburg clearly thought so, and stopped commissioners from voting. "Please do not base your judgment on that criterion," Ginsburg implored, shaking his head and sensing legal trouble. "That [being a local firm] was not one of the criteria we put out in our specifications."

Hawkins carefully set the record straight: "What I know I heard from Commissioner Penelas, although it might not have completely been recorded, is that in his best judgment, even though Sirgany/Century happened to be a local company, he felt they were the best one and that's why I seconded it."

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