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It had been a long, hard-fought political campaign, and for months Katy Sorenson had been promising her family that when it was finally over, they would take a much needed vacation. And so this past November, during the week of Thanksgiving, Dade County's newest commissioner flew off to Hawaii with her husband and two children. It was warm and beautiful and it went by far too quickly. Leaving the islands was going to be hard enough; the thought of a long, cramped, uncomfortable plane ride back to Miami only made it worse.
But as Sorenson learned, membership in Dade County's power elite has its advantages A even when you're 5000 miles from home. On the return trip, American Airlines moved Sorenson and her family from coach to first class. Spacious seats. Attentive service. Excellent food and complimentary drinks. All of it free of charge, a professional courtesy. Solely because she is a Dade County commissioner. "It is certainly a VIP perk," Sorenson acknowledges.
That particular perk was worth approximately $4000. And it may have violated Dade's ethics code, which prohibits all county employees, including commissioners, from asking for special treatment and privileges because of their positions with the county. Violations of the code can be prosecuted by the State Attorney's Office and are punishable by up to a $500 fine and 30 days in jail.
If Sorenson broke any laws by stepping up to first class, she might take some comfort in the knowledge that she's hardly alone. For years county commissioners, their staff members, and other high-ranking county bureaucrats have routinely asked for (and in some cases demanded) free upgrades to first class from airlines flying out of Miami International Airport. And they have done so for travel both personal and professional. Some airline companies willingly provide such favors to commissioners and other county officials who make decisions affecting their operations at the airport, but at least one carrier, American Airlines, has recently declared that the practice in Miami is out of control and must be stopped.
That Sorenson could so quickly have discovered these so-called courtesy upgrades is testament to their pervasiveness. Shortly after her election, she says, an aviation department employee informed her that airlines regularly bumped commissioners up to first class on a space-available basis. The employee, Dickie Davis, then told Sorenson to call her when she was about to travel; Davis would check with the airline to determine whether an upgrade could be arranged.
A short time later Sorenson contacted Davis regarding her family's plans for a vacation in Hawaii, and asked if an upgrade was possible. Davis said she'd check. "I was trying to make her feel welcome to the county," recalls Davis, who is the aviation department's assistant director for marketing and terminal operations. "I was just trying to be nice. I made it clear to her that I wouldn't do anything that was improper. I would only do something that was commonly done by others."
Davis called one of her contacts at American Airlines, who entered into the company's computer system a message that Sorenson and her family should be moved up to first class if seats were available. When the Sorenson clan arrived at MIA, they learned that all first-class seats between Miami and Hawaii were taken, so no upgrade was possible. But the return trip proved to be more accommodating. "It just meant we were able to sleep more comfortably," Sorenson says. "My position on VIP perks is that I feel they are okay as long as they don't hurt anyone. But I can understand there might be a problem with how this is perceived."
Dickie Davis admits that Sorenson wasn't the first county official to have received her assistance in obtaining airline upgrades. "Surely I've done it before or I would not have known how to do it for Katy," she concedes. But Davis claims she can't recall the names of others she may have helped. Nor can she remember which person at American Airlines she spoke to about Sorenson's travel plans. "I know many people at American," she says.
With regard to Dade's ethics laws as they pertain to such "VIP perks," Davis says she relied on Sorenson, and Sorenson says she relied on Davis. The newly elected commissioner assumed it wasn't a violation because it was arranged by the county's own aviation department. Davis counters by saying, "I don't know what their code of ethics are. I thought I would offer and it would be up to her to decide if it was all right."
Since Sorenson's November trip, Davis says she's received one other inquiry about an upgrade. "I remember someone calling me from one of the airlines asking me who someone was," she recounts. "They were trying to see if the person was really some big shot." She contacted a few people, determined that the individual in question was influential, and reported back to the airline. Today Davis can't recall either the airline or the name of the "big shot."
Indeed, there are so many big shots in Miami it's hardly surprising an airport official would lose track of a name now and then. In addition to Sorenson, County Commission Chairman Art Teele admits he accepts courtesy upgrades from various airlines, as do airport director Gary Dellapa and his second in command, Amaury Zuriarrain. Commissioners Maurice Ferre and Pedro Reboredo (who chairs the commission's powerful aviation committee) also acknowledge asking for upgrades. And according to sources within the aviation department and others familiar with the subject, Commissioner Natacha Millan, former county manager Joaquin Avi*o, several assistant county managers, and former commissioners Joe Gersten and Larry Hawkins all have repeatedly asked for free upgrades from airline companies doing business at MIA.