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.

However, neither Dellapa nor Zuriarrain could account for the apparent double standard that exists today: County "leadership," themselves included, are permitted to accept favors from airlines, but lower-ranking employees are not.

County Attorney Robert Ginsburg refuses to respond to questions regarding possible violations of Dade's ethics code as it applies to free airline upgrades. If commissioners would like to ask him for his opinion, Ginsburg says, he will offer it to them privately. To date, however, no one ever has. But some measure of his concern was evident when he asked New Times: "No one in my office has been doing that, have they?" None of his staff members appeared to be involved. Upon hearing that, Ginsburg sighed with relief, smiled, and said, "Good."

Regardless of Ginsburg's opinion on the matter, ultimate responsibility for investigating any possible violations lies with the Dade State Attorney's Office, a fact that causes some people to snicker derisively. "That makes me laugh," says a senior aviation department employee. "How many investigations have they started that go nowhere? And I'm confident that if they decided to investigate this, that it wouldn't go anywhere either. And I'm sure commissioners realize that as well."

Within days of their election, commissioners receive from Ginsburg a copy of the county's ethics code, which contains three sections that appear relevant to airline upgrades: "Disclosure," "Exploitation of Official Position Prohibited" and "Gifts."

The "Disclosure" section is simple. It requires commissioners and high-ranking county employees annually to file locally and with the Florida Secretary of State a list of any gifts having a value in excess of $25. A review of commission disclosure forms shows that no commissioner has ever listed an airline upgrade as a gift.

The "Exploitation" language is unambiguous: "No person...shall use or attempt to use his official position to secure special privileges or exemptions for himself or others..." Commissioners interviewed for this article were unable to explain why their actions did not violate this section.

The "Gifts" section, however, invites interpretation. It states that county employees, including commissioners, "shall neither solicit nor demand any gift." The ordinance defines "gift" as "the transfer of anything of economic value whether in the form of money, service, loan, travel, entertainment, [or] hospitality" without adequately paying for that item or service.

The section also targets those who would offer gifts to county employees in anticipation of favors or as a reward for actions already taken.

Some commissioners argue that the gifts section of the law does not apply because free upgrades carry no cost. According to this argument, economics are not involved when a commissioner is moved to what otherwise would be an empty seat. As the aviation department's Zuriarrain puts it: "An empty seat has no value to an airline."

But Ted Tedesco, from American Airlines, angrily rejects the no-cost argument. "It does cost us and we've proven it," he asserts. "And besides, it's not up to them to say what does or does not have value to an airline. An upgrade has value attached to it. Of course it does." By way of analogy, Tedesco points out that people can't walk into a restaurant shortly before it closes and expect a free meal just because the remaining food is about to be discarded.

As for those who would offer gifts to county employees in hopes of favorable treatment, Tedesco says American has never offered upgrades for that purpose. "We don't need to do that to make sure somebody listens to us," he says. However, other airline executives appear to feel differently. Mike Ragan, a top Continental Airlines official at MIA, says he's never been asked to upgrade a commissioner, but he'd would be more than happy to do so. "We wouldn't do it for just anyone," he explains candidly. "It would have to be for someone who would have something we could get from it. They are important people."

That's the sort of attitude that has Tedesco scratching his head. "What is it about the system in Miami?" he wonders aloud. "I certainly don't know. Commissioners have a view of their role that is inflated by everyone around them. It's just amazing.

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