First Class All the Way

You're a very important person. Someone with influence. A big-shot bureaucrat. A friggin' Dade County Commissioner! And when you travel, you expect those airlines to understand that you want to go first class all the way.

Commission staffers are also known to ask for special consideration. In July 1994, for instance, Jackie Bofill, who at the time was executive assistant to Commissioner Sherman Winn, flew to the Canary Islands with her husband as part of the county's Sister Cities program. On the flight over, she asked for and received a courtesy upgrade to business class. "I have friends at American," says Bofill. She never considered that the request might have been an ethics violation. "I think a lot depends on how the person asks for the upgrade and how often they do it," she says, noting that the transatlantic flight was the first and only time she's received an upgrade. "I don't think it's a violation if you don't abuse it."

One aviation department employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says she has handled more than 50 requests for upgrades in the past five years from commissioners, their staffs, and other county officials. She claims she rarely calls the airlines herself (an assertion doubted by others in her department) but rather forwards the requests to the county's official travel agent, Lorraine Travel. "I think most of the time the people got the upgrade or they wouldn't have kept calling me," the employee says. "After a while I was tired of being the middle person and I told people to call Lorraine directly."

Jack Guiteras, owner of Miami's Lorraine Travel, says he is unaware of any calls to his office from the aviation department, and believes it is far more likely that most upgrades are orchestrated by county staffers at MIA. But he does admit he receives requests on behalf of commissioners and other county officials who want free upgrades, and he helps when he can. "Some commissioners we never hear from at all," says Guiteras, who spoke to New Times with reluctance. "It's really three or four at most that we regularly get calls from about upgrades." Guiteras refuses to identify the commissioners by name.

Lorraine Travel has acted as the county's travel agent for the past eight years under a contract that has been extended several times by the county commission. But the current contract is about to expire, and Lorraine is now competing against three other firms for the exclusive right to handle more than one million dollars in annual county travel business, a situation that raises some tricky questions.

Is it appropriate for commissioners to ask Lorraine for privileged treatment? Does the travel agency feel pressured to please politicians and other county executives despite possible ethics violations and American's new restrictive policies? Will the favors granted by Lorraine in the past put its competitors at a disadvantage as county commissioners consider awarding a new contract? (Katy Sorenson acknowledges receiving special coupons from Lorraine Travel that entitle her to free upgrades on USAir. She also says Lorraine arranged a courtesy upgrade for her on a January flight from Miami to Tallahassee. Other commissioners are also known to have received USAir coupons from Lorraine. Guiteras confirms that various airlines supply him with special coupons, which he then passes along to preferred customers. "We don't have any particular rhyme or reason as to how we give them out," he explains. "We probably did it with Commissioner Sorenson because she was the new kid on the block, sort of a get-to-know-you kind of thing.")

The owner of Lorraine Travel may have been reluctant to describe his company's role in obtaining upgrades, but Dade County Aviation Director Gary Dellapa has no qualms about discussing the subject. "I know we assist commissioners," he concedes. "I'm sure we do it here." His department has not designated a specific employee to process requests for upgrades, and there is no formal policy addressing the subject. But Dellapa himself has received upgrades directly from the airlines. "Half the time I get upgraded, half the time I don't," he offers. "I don't see any problem with it. Within the industry, it's a courtesy not unlike when an airline has a big issue before the commission -- we move it up to a certain time for them for their convenience."

Aviation director since 1993, Dellapa insists that the upgrades he's received have had no effect on his professional dealings with airlines doing business at MIA. "I don't know that anyone who gets a wider seat for an hour and a half from an airline, that that airline would get any special treatment," he contends.

Though Dellapa says Assistant County Attorney Murray Greenberg has approved his acceptance of upgrades, no written policy exists with regard to other aviation department employees. "I don't know that our staff accepts them," he says. "Generally it's just the leadership of the county." But airport deputy director Amaury Zuriarrain says that issue was settled more than ten years ago, at a time when airlines were willing to extend discounts and other benefits to county employees working at the airport A in much the same way the airlines offer those benefits to their own employees. Zuriarrain explains that the county manager nixed the practice because it wasn't fair to have one group of county employees favored over another.

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