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Tedesco recalls that he received a frantic late-night phone call in Dallas from anxious American officials in Los Angeles who were trying to figure out who this man Gersten was. "You get tired of taking calls like that," Tedesco says wearily. At that time American was negotiating with Dade County for a major expansion at MIA. Rather than confront Gersten, whose vote was pivotal, airline officials decided it would be more prudent to apologize to the commissioner for any inconvenience he may have suffered. And with that gesture, some say, American and other airlines lost control of MIA. What you offer to one commissioner, you must offer to them all.
It's unlikely that any commissioner has ever been as arrogant or abusive as Gersten, who remains a fugitive from justice following allegations he smoked crack with a Biscayne Boulevard hooker. But there is little doubt today that many county officials view the upgrades as an entitlement, a VIP perk that comes with the job. Commission Chairman Art Teele, for example, is a forthright defender of the practice. "I routinely pay for upgrades and I have my travel vouchers to prove it," Teele says. "But I don't want to mislead you. On some occasions I have been afforded an upgrade as a matter of courtesy. I am certain that I have received those."
Although he says he's never used the aviation department to obtain an upgrade for himself, he does often ask county staff at the airport to make arrangements for dignitaries. "I just requested an upgrade for a senior White House staffer who was visiting Miami," Teele offers.
"I'm surprised any commissioner would have to request an upgrade for himself," the chairman continues. "They normally would be recognized at the airport and offered the service." Typically, Teele explains, he is upgraded because airline personnel know who he is and are simply being hospitable, whether he's flying for business or pleasure. "American Airlines and USAir and Delta people are always very courteous to me," he says.
Teele may not actually ask for the favor, but he sees nothing wrong with those commissioners who do. After all, he says, it is routine practice for airlines to provide free upgrades to governmental employees who oversee the industry. (Ted Tedesco strongly disagrees. "American does not do that," he huffs.) Furthermore, Teele argues, the issue of airline courtesies is ludicrously trivial when compared to the many serious and complicated problems facing the county. "This is a full-time job for which we are only paid $6000 a year," he retorts, "and I just have a hard time nickel-and-diming county commissioners who are receiving some perk that doesn't amount to any real financial benefit."
Commissioner Maurice Ferre goes a step further. "I see absolutely nothing wrong with it," he declares. "I think an organization that spends $1.2 million on air travel, which Dade County does, should get certain considerations."
Commissioner Pedro Reboredo acknowledges he's asked for and received upgrades from airlines since his election in 1993. The chairman of the commission's aviation committee says he tries to use various frequent-flyer programs, but he notes that "sometimes you might not have the coupons with you, so you ask if there is any availability, and if there is, they'll give it to you."
Recently Reboredo asked for an American Airlines upgrade for a trip to Geneva, Switzerland. Though he was turned down, the commissioner believes he was justified in making the request because he was traveling to a human rights meeting and was carrying onboard a lot of conference material. First class simply provided more space. "You can extrapolate to the maximum," he says by way of dismissing the suggestion he may have violated the county's ethics code.
Commissioner Natacha Millan refused to answer questions about courtesy upgrades, though sources within the aviation department claim she has received them. Commissioner Alex Penelas says that only once has he received a free upgrade, while flying on personal business from Miami to Honduras in 1993. "It was unsolicited, I didn't ask for it," he recalls. "The clerk at the ticket counter recognized me and asked if I'd like to be upgraded and I said, 'Sure, why not?'"
Commissioner Bruce Kaplan, who logs at least 100,000 flight miles per year as part of his international law practice, says he has never asked for or received an upgrade based on his status as a county commissioner. "Because I fly so much," he explains, "I've got more coupons for upgrades than I know what to do with." Commissioners Gwen Margolis and Miguel Diaz de la Portilla also say they have neither asked for nor received a courtesy upgrade. (Commissioners James Burke, Betty Ferguson, Dennis Moss, and Javier Souto could not be reached for comment late last week.)
Assistant County Manager Tony Ojeda, however, asks for and receives first-class upgrades with regularity, either through the aviation department or the county's designated travel agency. "On a fourteen-hour trip to Chile or Paraguay, I definitely try to get upgraded," he says, adding that he travels to those countries several times each year on county business. Ojeda may have also received upgrades for his personal travel, though he says he is not certain.