Dialing Your Dollars

You say you haven't got a cellular phone? Heck, you own hundreds of 'em! And right now some local bureaucrat is using one to make a hairdressing appointment.

As mobiles have become a more common feature of the executive culture, users have become increasingly dependent upon them. They are seen as a necessity by county staff who seek to be accessible 24 hours a day. But even more than other "productivity tools" such as faxes or personal computers, the cellular also seems to offer an irresistible temptation for personal use. Go ahead, no one's looking -- reach out and touch somone.

"It's not our responsibility to go after people making personal calls," says Jorge Bello, the accountant who processes the reams of cellular bills the county receives each month. "Our primary job is to spot-check the bills for fraud, meaning people [called cloners] who tap into the county lines and run up massive bills. There's no way we could audit 800 or 900 bills, anyway."

After reviewing the bills with an assistant, Bello forwards them to the finance department for payment. A liaison in each department also receives a copy of all bills for phones used by that department. "The liaisons are the ones who would check for personal calls," Bello says.

That comes as news to Anita Palma, the liaison for the Metro Commission, whose cumulative annual bills run second only to the Metro-Dade Police Department's. (Because police phone bills contain the numbers of confidential informants and other sensitive information, they are not considered public records and could not be obtained for this story.) Palma says she generally doesn't get itemized bills, just a monthly printout with totals. She cannot recall ever having asked a commissioner or staffer about an especially large total. "They have to come to me to request their bills to look over," explains Palma. "If they find that any of their calls are personal, they give me a personal check. Really, we rely on ITD quite a bit, because they're the first ones that see the bill and check it."

Bonnie Burrell, liaison for the County Manager's Office, says she counts on the technology department, too. "Sometimes ITD will flag a bill," Burrell observes, "but I've never really done that myself." She adds that she has no idea whether personal use is allowed.

Three other factors make monitoring cellular use impractical. First, a considerable number of the bills the county receives yields totals but no listing of individual calls. Second, though incoming calls to mobiles cost money, the bills don't record the phone numbers of those who call in. And third, while detailed bills generally list the user's phone number and department, they rarely include the name of the person who uses the phone. To track down that information requires a call to ITD. (Sometimes the bills are simply mislabeled. We spent hours scrutinizing bills listed as Maurice Ferre's, for instance, only to discover the phone in question was actually used by a flack for the aviation department.)

Sound like a system ripe for exploitation? Let's take a little look-see, starting with our esteemed Metro commissioners.

Commissioner James Burke, an affable Georgian known for his tortured syntax and his tumultuous personal life, is far and away the most prolific dialer on the dais. From April 1994 through this past March, county records indicate, Burke spent $7368 on his two cellular phones. That's an average monthly phone bill of $600.

Just who was the commish calling?
Most of the time, Burke said, he was phoning "advisors." But if you want to get technical, you could refer to them as "friends" and "relatives."

He spent hundreds of dollars seeking the counsel of his eldest brother in Tacoma. And his younger sister in Waycross, Georgia. And his brother in Atlanta. And his daughter and grandkids in Tuskegee, Alabama. And his college chums in Greenville, South Carolina. Burke's number one consultant appears to be the most recent of his four ex-wives, State Rep. Beryl Roberts Burke, whom he called up to four times a day at her office in Tallahassee or on her cellular phone. He even phoned the Tallahassee home of his former mother-in-law. Other than calls to his office and to his aides, nearly every number Burke calls routinely is, by his own reckoning, that of either a friend or relative.

Burke's shining moment came this past September on a trip to Washington, D.C. As usual, he brought along his cellular and in one epic four-day binge amassed $367 in "roamer" charges. The highlight was a 98-minute powwow with an old pal from Greer, South Carolina, that cost $111. (Burke utilized his call-waiting feature to ring up an extra 83 bucks during this very chat.)

Asked about his prowess, the father of five and grandfather of half a dozen was characteristically humble. "I'm the kind of guy who likes to get advice on matters that come before the commission, and the best advice comes from those who talk straight with you," he opined. "With phone use, the general rule is, if it's within your annual budget for the office, and not disapproved, then I guess it's considered appropriate, or allowable."

Might there be any use of the phone that is improper? "I think it's improper to use them to sell drugs," the commissioner deadpanned. (At least we think he was deadpanning.)

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