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.

Like his former colleagues on the Metro Commission, Ruvin was quick to note that there is nothing illegal about making personal calls on his cell phone. Insisting he couldn't verify any of the calls made so long ago, Ruvin also warned us not to assume they were all his. "I know my phone has been cloned three times," he reported, adding that a story about the cloning of phones would be much more interesting than a story about personal calls.

Well, if we were doing a story about the cloning of phones, we'd be unlikely to hold up Ruvin's bill as a typical example: It contains just one brief long-distance call. Most of the numbers that appear on Ruvin's bills belong to people who admit they know him. Jorge Bello, who checks Dade's cellulars for fraud, says bills from cloned phones nearly always list dozens of long-distance calls, generally to New York or the Caribbean.

If anyone knows the value of a mobile phone, it has to be Kate Hale, director of the Metro-Dade Office of Emergency Management. Who, after all, can forget the heroic role she played during Hurrricane Andrew, when she spent weeks barking entreaties and orders into her ever-present cellular?

Though we haven't seen a hurricane since that fateful night in '92, Hale is keeping herself in prime dialing condition. "I use it absolutely all the time," she enthused. "If I'm at a conference and my pager goes off, I can return the call on the cell instead of having to leave and miss the meeting. The calls do become habit-forming, I'll admit that." Hale may have been referring to her April bill, which totaled $666, mostly rung up during business trips to Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

But business trips and conferences don't seem to be the only occasions to have spurred Hale's cell-phone fever. She calls her mother in East Tawas, Michigan, and another relative in Flint. And a cousin in Williamsburg, Virginia. And a certain entity known as Credit Corporation.

Hale quietly conceded these calls weren't related to her job and that she did not reimburse the county for them, and then she politely took her leave, announcing that she was late for a meeting.

Virginia Sanchez, the county's director
of intergovernmental affairs, spoke of her
cellular in reverential tones. "It's my lifeline," said Dade's chief in-house lobbyist. "When we're up in Tallahassee or Washington, we've often got no vehicle to communicate other than those phones."

A close look at Sanchez's bills, though, reveals that the most common numbers aren't those of power brokers but of friends and relatives in Miami.

"When you travel as much as I do and have odd working hours, you do call those people that act as a sort of support system," Sanchez commented candidly.

It's hard to fault Sanchez for seeking a little comfort or for trying to keep her personal affairs in order during her extended trips. Unfortunately, because she is using a cellular from Miami, her "roamer" calls cost nearly one dollar per minute. In April 1994, she spent a shade over $1000 on calls while in Tallahassee. Thirty percent of that sum went for calls to her "support system." And that's just outgoing calls. Incoming personal calls -- and there were dozens -- are untraceable.

This past April, Sanchez was more restrained, logging a mere $543 worth of calls; about $150 went for outgoing personal calls. In addition to the cellular phone and an annual salary in excess of $70,000, the county supplies Sanchez with an apartment in Tallahassee (phone included). New Times did not request copies of those bills.

"The overwhelming majority of my calls are business calls, particularly during legislative sessions," offered Nancy Hughes, the state coordinator for intergovernmental affairs, who often travels with Sanchez. "I do make personal calls from time to time, mostly to keep in touch with things at home."

Hughes's $506 April bill included $150 in outgoing calls she identifies as personal. She spent $94 on calls to one friend, whom she declines to identify. In April 1994, taxpayers footed $138 worth of calls to this same friend.

Hughes and Sanchez say they know of no rule that forbids their making personal calls on publicly funded cell phones. "The assumption is that they're for business," Sanchez noted. "But for Nancy and me, given the nature of our work, I'd argue that a lot of these calls are a judgment call."

If there's one group you'd expect to be able to make judgment calls, it would be Dade's judges, many of whom, thanks to Chief Judge Leonard Rivkind, now pack their own portables.

New Times took a gander at only one judge's bill -- selected virtually at random. The results were not heartening.

Richard Feder has been the administrative judge of the Family Division of the Eleventh Circuit since the so-called Family Court was established in 1992. As administrative judge, Feder says, it's important that he be accessible at all times, in case another judge needs to reach him or an emergency arises in court. "The phone is not to be used for purely personal purposes," he declared with judicial decisiveness. "My calls are often with people who are concerned because they either haven't gotten child support or visitation, or someone is beating someone up."

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