Money Well Spent

Airport parties are first-class affairs, as long as you're a political player

What a marvelous spectacle it must have been. A concourse filled with several hundred county bureaucrats, tipsy airline executives, and scotch-swilling local politicians, all rubbing elbows with a select group of well-scrubbed, strapping young men.

The date: December 28, 1988.
The place: Miami International Airport.
The occasion: A party for the University of Nebraska football team. Four days later the Cornhuskers would take the field against the University of Miami in the Orange Bowl and be trounced by a score of 23-3. Despite the gridiron disappointment, players at least would be comforted by one fond memory: "Sure we lost, but how about that airport party!"

Detailed diagrams and plans for the gala had been prepared weeks earlier. There were five different bars, strategically located so that no politico would have to stagger more than a few feet to refill his glass. Nearly $1500 worth of hard liquor was downed in only a few hours that night, with another $400 in wine and beer.

Brightly colored floral arrangements (cost: $4000) added flair to the otherwise drab third floor of Concourse D. Tray after tray of fresh shrimp and hot hors d'oeuvres seemed to float through the room on the fingertips of smiling waiters and waitresses. Against one long wall sat a massive table lined with freshly roasted turkeys and baked hams. A chef stood at the ready, dutifully carving thick slabs of prime rib.

A separate room was devoted to scrumptious desserts: chocolate cheese cakes, cream-filled eclairs, and other tempting delights. More than $10,000 worth of food was consumed by the 400-plus invited guests. To help work off such a big meal, the Gary Dubler orchestra A a five-piece band capable of bridging the generation gap between old fogies and college kids A was on hand for dancing. It was a good gig for the musicians: $1600 for four hours. And of course there was the rented parquet dance floor, a bargain at $718 for the evening.

So who paid for all this? The Dade County Aviation Department, ostensibly as a promotion for Miami International Airport. And how does a room full of bloated and buzzed bureaucrats promote the airport? That's what the Federal Aviation Administration would like to know. That 1988 extravaganza is one of about 70 expenses A totaling more than $1.1 million A being investigated by the FAA following an audit by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of the Inspector General.

The audit, completed this past October, examined airport expenditures from 1988 through 1991. And while the county's aviation department no longer sponsors an Orange Bowl party, such lavish spending has not diminished, according to the report. To the contrary, auditors have discovered that Dade County commissioners and the county manager's office have used the airport's "promotional" budget as a private slush fund to pay for pet social events.

Because Miami International Airport receives federal funding (about $15 million per year), it is prohibited by law from spending money on anything except affairs directly related to the airport. But why should the federal government care how Dade County chooses to spend money earned at the airport? As one federal official puts it: "Why should Uncle Sam send the Dade County Aviation Department money so that you turn around and spend airport profits on banquet tables, Orange Bowl parties, and parades?"

Those are exactly the sorts of expenditures found by auditors. In 1988 the aviation department's annual promotional budget was modest A about $170,000. But one year later, with a new commission and a new aviation director in place, it jumped dramatically A to $650,000. Since then airport funds have been used to sponsor, among many other things, softball teams, track-and-field events, and golf tournaments.

When the National Black Caucus of State Legislators came to Miami in November 1989, the aviation department A under orders from county commissioners A spent more than $37,000 to help entertain them by renting a cruise ship for a one-night dinner party for approximately 500 people.

In 1991 $25,000 was donated to the Miami Film Festival, $2500 was spent to support the Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce's "International Ball," and $150,000 for the National Association of Counties' annual conference. That same year the aviation department spent another $25,000 on a "Salute to the Troops Home-coming Cele-bration" following the Persian Gulf War; to give the downtown bash the feel of a "ticker-tape parade," the airport shelled out $5000 for shredded paper and streamers. "In comparison to the operations at other airports, Dade County's expenditures are, how shall I say it, unusual," explains one knowledgeable federal official who has reviewed the inspector general's audit but could speak only on condition of anonymity.

FAA officials and federal inspectors also express dismay with the ease by which commissioners appear to have raided the airport's coffers, even when aviation department officials have disapproved. "For the majority of those expenditures, the people at the aviation department didn't have any say. They were told what to do," the federal official asserts. "County commissioners simply said, 'This is what we are taking out of the airport.' The people at the airport, they understand what a law is and they understand their contract with the FAA and the grant assurances they've signed. But if they are told by downtown, 'This is the way it is going to be,' then that's the way it is going to be."

Richard Judy, Dade County Avia-tion Director from 1972 to 1989, says that only in the last couple of years of his tenure did commissioners become so brazen. "I fought it and fought it and fought it, and finally succumbed to it," Judy recalls. "They would put those resolutions on my agenda, as if it was the aviation department recommending these expenditures, and then they would just pass them. They never came through me."

Judy sympathizes with the position his successor, Rick Elder, must have been in. "I don't think Rick had any control over these funds," he says. "The county manager should have stood up to the commissioners on these things, but he didn't."

In fact, one of those expenditures being questioned by federal authorities originated directly from the county manager's office: a $1000 "contribution," as the report calls it, to the politically powerful Cuban American National Foundation. According to aviation department records, the request for the money began with a phone call from County Manager Joaquin Avi*o's office to the aviation department's Ana Sotorrio, who was liaison to the commission and the county manager.

Sotorrio was told the manager's office wanted to purchase tickets for a full table at a May 20, 1992, luncheon to commemorate Cuban Independence Day and the Cuban American National Foundation's tenth anniversary. But Avi*o's office wanted the airport to foot the bill: ten tickets at $100 each. Sotorrio then sent a typewritten memo to Rick Elder, her boss. Elder responded in a handwritten note beneath Sotorrio's note: "OK. I want us to have at least 4 of the seats." The number four was underlined, twice.

Some time later, at the bottom of the same memo, Sotorrio added her final comments to Elder: "Rick A The Manager's Office advises that they need four seats, so we have six."

Elder then instructed the airport's assistant director for finance to "please issue a check in the amount of $1000 payable to Cuban American National Foundation." The check was issued the next day.

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