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.

Billy Hardemon was on the phone, and Billy Hardemon sounded...well, he sounded worried. "I understand you've been looking at my cellular phone records," fretted Metro Commissioner James Burke's chief of staff. "I just want you to know up-front that this office operates by the book."

While it is certainly understandable that a chief of staff would want to safeguard himself against unfounded attacks in the press, there was something a tad curious about Hardemon's unsolicited call. Namely, it was late May, and New Times had yet to inspect any of his records. In fact the ink on the public-records request for Hardemon's cellular phone bills had barely dried when County Attorney Robert Ginsburg, to whom the request was addressed, alertly suggested that a memo be sent to everyone whose records had been sought.

Sadly, Ginsburg's kind gesture did little to quell the anxiety of Hardemon and his peers. That a reporter might actually take the time to inspect how assorted muckety-mucks make use of their cell phones -- property for which taxpayers foot the bill -- did not sit well with them at all. Metro Commission Chairman Art Teele accused New Times of harassment. Carmen Lunetta, director of the Port of Miami, cried witch-hunt. Sergeant at arms Jim Zanconata, whose job it is to provide transportation and security for Metro commissioners, didn't strain for semantics; he threatened bodily harm if his name were to appear in print.

After weeks of pawing through itemized bills, we'd have to agree that a little defensiveness was probably appropriate: Records show that Dade Countians annually shell out thousands upon thousands of dollars to subsidize personal phone calls made by elected officials and public workers. To family. To friends. To hairdressers. Heck, even to the Florida Lottery Player Information line.

It's hard to blame the politicians and bureaucrats for their itchy dialing fingers, though. Because as far as we could discern, there is no rule that forbids county employees making personal calls. Though there does seem to be some vague sense among county staff that they ought to pay for personal calls, the county has no formal reimbursement process and provides almost nothing in the way of oversight. The detailed bills that would allow for auditing are difficult -- often impossible -- to track down. (Billy Hardemon will be thrilled to learn that Dade County keeps no itemized breakdown of his monthly bills, which have run as high as $400.)

Well, the county may not care much about personal calls, but we do. Because the money they spend on cellular phones -- nearly one million dollars per year -- is supplied by us, the taxpayers. The phones themselves belong to us; they're public property. And the bills we examined are public record.

Our survey was by no means exhaustive. Spotty might be a better word, actually, given the difficulty of locating bills. But it should be enough to suggest what happens when you distribute free cellular phones to 900 people -- with no visible purse strings attached.

A little context might prove instructive before we name names. Let's start at the beginning, with the cellular phone itself. What a quintessentially Eighties invention: a phallic symbol that simultaneously asserts productivity and status.

Cell phones (also known as mobiles) are, in essence, high-tech walkie-talkies that have been integrated into the telephone system. Whereas conventional phone lines transmit along a network of cables, cell phones use radio waves. There was a time not long ago when cellular phones were a rarity, big and clunky and expensive. As the phones grew sleeker and less expensive, however, their cachet soared. In sprawling South Florida, a busy executive might spend hours in traffic between meetings, hours he could now use to receive or return calls.

Hurricane Andrew marked a watershed. The storm destroyed standard phone lines, often leaving cellulars as the only available form of communication. All of a sudden, nobody wanted to be without a mobile, and soon South Florida boasted the highest rate of ownership in the nation. The county, needless to say, did its part. In January 1992, 315 cellular phones were available for the use of county personnel. As of April 1995, there were 914.

Compared to standard phone lines, mobiles carry a steep price, from 20 to 26 cents per minute for local calls, depending on whether the call is made during "peak" business hours. What's more, because cellular users are paying for airtime, an equivalent fee is incurred to receive calls. Long-distance calls made on a cellular cost the standard rate negotiated by the county, usually between 35 and 55 cents per minute. But the rate for "roamer" calls -- those made by a user who has traveled with her phone to another city -- run up to one dollar per minute.

How much of your money is Dade County spending? In January 1993, the county's total monthly bill was $40,870, according to Dade's Information and Technology Department (ITD). By September of that year, the monthly tally had risen to $71,000. This past December, with the help of the Summit of the Americas, the county racked up a whopping $102,000 bill. The annual tab from April 1994 through March 1995 was $875,000 -- just for airtime, which doesn't include the $350 to $530 shelled out to buy each phone.

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.)

The champ shows little sign of slowing: April's tab for his two phones totaled a healthy $577.

Pedro Reboredo is a cinch for second in the cellular sweepstakes. His totals for the year ending this past March are hard to figure, because his phones have been the frequent targets of cloners. A conservative estimate, based on county records, would be $4000. And Reboredo's largess extends to his staff. Like Burke, he has authorized the use of seven phones for his office.

The rookie commissioner was quick to point out that he reimburses the county for long-distance calls to Central America. (Based on records supplied by liaison Anita Palma, Reboredo is the only commissioner to have reimbursed the county at all in the past two years). But unlike Burke, Reboredo refused to discuss the hundreds of local calls he makes every month. "I avoid, if possible, making personal calls. But it's not always possible, because time is very limited," he reasoned. "I don't think you understand precisely the facts of life as a public official."

Perhaps not, because we weren't exactly sure how calling home 60 times per month could enhance Reboredo's on-the-job efficiency. In the interest of better understanding, we dialed up a bunch of the most common numbers on the commissioner's itemized bills. One was the home of Reboredo's cousin. Another belonged to a man who said he was a "business friend." Most, however, declined to identify themselves or posit why Reboredo might call them. Ask the commissioner, they said.

Pressed to identify a few of these phone pals, Reboredo announced that he couldn't spare another moment and asked that a list be faxed to his office. A week later, a reply arrived. It was a statement by Assistant County Attorney Robert A. Cuevas, Jr., that reads in part, "You have asked whether it is permissible to use county-issued cellular phones for personal calls.... The carrying of cellular phones affords people the same telephonic capability that they have at their office, while they are at meetings and traveling by car, both during and after normal business hours. Such land line phones can be used for personal calls. Therefore, absent any county ordinance or regulation specifically limiting the use commissioners or their staff may make of county-issued cellular phones, such use by commissioners or their staff would appear to be permissible."

An elegant rejoinder, indeed, though it doesn't in any way address our question, which was, "Who are these people you're calling?"

Art Teele also likes Cuevas's line of reasoning. "The county attorney advised me when I was elected that any telephone call made by a commissioner is deemed to be official, whether it be county business or personal business," said the chairman, whose monthly bills range from $300 to $500.

Teele wants to check in with his mother in Tallahassee periodically, or even his mother-in-law up in Birmingham, Alabama? Just fine. Maurice Ferre wants to ring up his private consulting business? Why not? Alex Penelas feels compelled to chat with his parents up to five times a day? No problem.

Teele's own calls, it should be said, mostly involve business, though that business is sometimes far-flung. His bills show him to be in close contact with a high-level White House staffer named Alexis Herman, for instance. "Basically all the decisions on who the President meets with and doesn't go through her office," noted the chairman, who has logged dozens of calls to Herman's office and home in the past six months.

He says the real problem with cell phones is not personal use but rather the county's method of payment. "I've said from the dais that we could save probably $300,000 a year if we got a contract that charges a flat rate for unlimited local calls. With the volume we use, we should be able to negotiate something." (ITD officials say neither of the county's providers, BellSouth Mobility or Cellular One, offers a flat-rate plan. While rare, such plans do exist. Dallas, Texas, for instance, issues about 650 phones and pays $75 per line per month for local calls.)

Teele is likewise indignant at the suggestion that cellular phones be more strictly regulated. "What we're going to get is some stupid, pointed-headed rule that a news story like this will probably generate, when all we need is for people to use common sense and good judgment," he huffed. "I don't think any commissioner should be penalized for staying in touch with the public, whether their calls be personal or semi-personal."

But a quick peek at the 1991 administrative order that governs cellular phone distribution tends to argue that their use was originally defined in far narrower terms. In this document, then-County Manager Joaquin Avinó described the needs of those who will be issued phones. These include staffers whose jobs require "making and receiving calls while in transit which are critical to the immediate safety of life and/or property," those whose "delayed communication would cause a significant interruption in the delivery of services or a major negative impact to the county," and those whose "fixed telephones, pagers, two-way radio, voicemail, electronic mail, or fax machines cannot provide cost-effective, satisfactory communications."

The order went on to note that departments are responsible for reviewing monthly cellular bills and for holding "their employees accountable for any improper use of cellular or fixed phones."

What does all this bureaucratese mean?
Impossible to say, specifically, because Avinó never spelled out what he meant by "improper use." But back in 1991, at least, cellulars seem to have been intended as a last resort, not a convenience.

Even some of Teele's colleagues on the commission believe the attitude toward mobile phones has become too cavalier.

"When I came into office, they were giving these phones away like candy," Bruce Kaplan recalled. "There were no rules or warnings. It was just like, 'Hey, here it is. Go for it.' I learned the hard way, because I got two phones for my district offices, and the bills came back in the hundreds. So I yanked the phones. Now my aides use beepers and a lot of quarters."

Other phone-frugal commissioners include Dennis Moss, Gwen Margolis, and Javier Souto, each of whose bills rarely tops $100. "The only time I use the county phone is when my personal phone is broken," Margolis noted. "Because I find that I usually make personal calls on my cellular, and it's not right for the public to pay for those. There really should be some guidelines."

In principle, Esther Favole would probably agree. But in practice, she explained, the issue is more complicated. A veteran of Dade politics who serves as Natacha Millan's chief of staff, Favole runs up bills that routinely rank among the fattest of any commissioner's aide. Among her frequent phone buddies are her personal banker, her ex-husband, her mother, and lobbyist Ron Book, a long-time friend with whom she talks practically every day.

Favole said many of these calls had to do with coordinating care for her fourteen-year-old daughter. Others, she admitted, were in a strict sense personal. "But when you work twelve to fourteen hours a day, there isn't any other time to make certain calls," she said, echoing Pedro Reboredo's line of reasoning, one common to commission staff.

The question remains: Why does Favole, who spends most of her time in an office, choose to make so many of these calls on her county-issued cellular phone? "Look, when I make a call, I don't think about the fact that somebody might track the numbers," she replied. "I don't think, 'This is a call I shouldn't be making.' And because I don't think about things in those terms, I just dial."

Not surprisingly, this mindset extends well beyond the commissioners and their staffs.

You might think that Carmen Lunetta, director of the Port of Miami, would take his cellular phone with him wherever he goes. Running the multimillion-dollar port expansion is an around-the-clock endeavor, after all, one that must require power-phoning aplenty. "I make calls going to and coming from work and they're basically business-related," Lunetta confirmed.

But from the look of his bills, Lunetta reserves most of his phone time for the folks who really matter: his wife. His brother. His son. In fact, calls to family comprise nearly half of Lunetta's monthly tolls, which hover around $200. Most of the rest are calls into his office.

When we asked him about his phone use, Lunetta genially agreed to identify a few commonly called numbers. The first one we read him was his own home phone number.

"I'm not sure who that is," he remarked cagily. He paused for a long moment and swallowed. "Oh, did you say 2881? That's my home."

Suddenly Lunetta sounded a tad peevish. "If I make a call from the cellular, it's an important call. I'm not going to go on a witch-hunt with you. You could be pulling these numbers out of thin air. Fax the damn bills over."

We did. But we never heard back from Lunetta.
His brother, a builder, was more candid about his daily discussions with Lunetta. "We talk about family stuff," Carl explained.

Like Carmen Lunetta, Harvey Ruvin is one busy bureaucrat. As clerk of the county court, the former Metro commissioner oversees a staff of 1400. But his phone bills for April and June of 1994 portray a different Harvey Ruvin, a man thoroughly dedicated to friends, family, decent entertainment, and his coiffure.

Ruvin called his home a total of 132 times during these two months alone. Nearly all the numbers he dialed frequently (besides that of his office) belonged to his friends. While many of these people spoke glowingly of Ruvin when we got in touch with them, few could explain what sort of county business the clerk might be calling them about. His June bill alone contains a prodigious 650 calls.

For sheer versatility, Ruvin seems unrivaled. He called restaurants. He called hotels. He called political consultant and buddy George DePontis. He called then-Metro commissioner Sherman Winn. He called MovieFone. He called Discovery Zone. He called Toys R Us. And he called his hairdresser. He really gave his county-issued cellular a workout during a May 1994 trip to Orlando, logging $88 in "roamer" charges. The total damage for that month came to $447, after a $400 April.

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."

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.

"The way our job is, we got a lot of people we drive around," he explained. "And all of them, the foreign dignitaries and the commissioners, are allowed to use our phones. So it's not fair to assume that a call on our bill was made by us. Besides, my phone has been cloned repeatedly."

In that case, we won't even speculate as to who might have been calling a selection of American Express information numbers; it might well have been one of those visiting dignitaries trying to figure out what to do with his lottery winnings.

Besides, Zanconata is not someone we want to make angry. He's the man who informed a New Times colleague that if his name were mentioned in this story, he'd rough up the author.

Of all the hard-working county employees with whom we spoke, however, only one distinguished himself as worthy of the Joe Gersten award for most creative excuse.

And the winner is...
Donald James, division chief of community relations for the fire department. James entreated us not to highlight his calling record, explaining that his phone had been cloned so often that he'd make a lousy sample. Why, then, did his home number crop up among the others on his December bill? "I've been getting a lot of crank calls to my home. It might be that the person who cloned my phone is calling my house as a practical joke," James theorized. "The phone company could verify that."

We'll get right on it, chief.
Editorial intern Roberto Manzano assisted in the reporting of this story.

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