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.

Such definitive pronouncements rendered it a little awkward to cross-examine the judge about his $521 bill for this past April. Three-fourths of the calls, you see, were to assorted relatives.

Still, the jurist made a game effort to portray these conversations as relevant to his duties. He pointed out, for instance, that he often calls home to pick up messages. So, too, with calls to his daughter's home. "Though I'm sure I also ask about my grandchildren," he allowed.

Of the calls to his son in Columbia, South Carolina, Feder noted, "Even though he's not a doctor, he does have a lot of medical information, and I will sometimes call him to get a feel as to whether something I'm hearing in court is accurate or inaccurate." His son is a veterinarian.

Only when we asked Feder about a series of calls to a hospital in Gainesville did he reluctantly concede, "That is a personal matter, and I should have paid for those."

On the upside, Feder's records do show that he called at least one colleague regularly, a first-term judge named Ellen Venzer. That Venzer also happens to be his stepdaughter is a fact we needn't dwell on.

After this somewhat disillusioning chat, it came as a relief to speak with Charles Felton, director of Dade's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. "We're in a very tight budget situation and we recently revisited the cellular phone situation," Felton announced briskly. "I just eliminated ten from our budget."

Having come to Dade two years ago from a position as head of corrections in Pinellas County, Felton said he was used to tighter supervision of cellular bills and has tried to instill the same vigilance here. "We have had some bills that were unreasonably large and I was forced to take the phones from people for six months. Sometime back, I reviewed a bill that I considered inappropriate and I personally spoke with the employee, who indicated they had made $240 worth of personal calls. They were asked to reimburse the county, and they did."

Felton said he believes employees should be permitted to call home on their cellulars -- once a day. Other than that, he says, calls unrelated to corrections matters are verboten.

Not that we don't trust the man, but we did inspect one of Felton's bills, the one for April 1995. True to his word, most of the calls were strictly business. He did sometimes call home more than once a day, but never more than a few times. It was only when we saw the calls to Omaha, Nebraska, that we grew a little leery. Omaha is Felton's hometown.

"That must have been a family emergency," the corrections honcho explained, adding, "You know, there's really no formal policy from the county."

We seized upon the opportunity to ask Felton about a few calls placed to a number in St. Petersburg. "That may have been someone looking for a job," he replied. "A former student I had up there."

Just to make sure, we dialed the number ourselves. A woman answered. She sounded very nice. She identified herself as Felton's daughter. His two grandsons could be heard making toddler noises in the background.

A few minutes later, Felton called back to say that he now remembered who he was calling in St. Petersburg. (Those calls, like one of the calls to Omaha, were made on the weekend.)

One person who would flunk Felton's one-call-home-a-day rule is Sherwood DuBose, president of the Metro Miami Action Plan Trust, a public trust created to eliminate the disparity between Dade's black community and the community at large. DuBose is one of the county's most consistent phone spenders, amassing monthly bills that average more than $500. "My usage runs pretty high," the affable bureaucrat admitted. "But then, you've got to consider all the things we do. I've got a 21-member board, plus the commission. That's a lot of people to call."

Because the county doesn't order detailed billing for DuBose, we were only able to review a two-week period. During those fourteen days in early May, DuBose called his home a dizzying 70 times, or nearly once every five times he picked up his portable. "Hey, if my family beeps me, I'm going to call back," Sherwood said. "It's not like I'm going to get off the freeway and try to find a pay phone in Dade."

The same goes for Donald Blocker and Jim Zanconata. They're the two Metro-Dade cops assigned the unenviable task of serving as sergeants-at-arms for the County Commission. What does that mean? It means a whole lot of driving commissioners hither and yon, setting up security for their bosses' public appearances, and sitting around while the bigwigs schmooze. All of which naturally leads to a certain tedium.

Blocker, for instance, admitted that he has occasionally called a local technical school to chat with a friend and a relative who work there. Like many of the county workers we spoke to, he told us he'd be happy to reimburse the county for his personal calls, if the county asks him to.

Zanconata was steadfast, however, in defending his honor. County records indicate that he was assigned a phone that listed calls to the Florida Lottery Players' Information line, as well as a toll-free number for tax information (which are billed at the regular cellular rate for local calls). Though Zanconata says he does play Lotto, he vehemently denied having called either number.

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