Very Big Bucks

The most lucrative contract in the history of Miami International Airport is about to be awarded to one lucky company

And while Pereira isn't complaining, he does note that the other bidders didn't appear to actually follow all the rules. "I guess here in the United States it seems that it is quite normal that people are allowed to change their proposals," he says with some bemusement. "I would have thought that they would have been disqualified, but not here."

When it came time to assemble its team, Brasif did not solicit as partners any prominent local minorities, opting instead for a slate of blacks and Hispanics with specific experience in the duty-free industry. Nor did the company believe it needed to employ lobbyists. "We hired them because we were advised that it would be extremely important to hire lobbyists," Pereira says. "It was all very strange for us. We've never done that before. We are not an American company. We don't want to deal with politicians. We wanted to win through competence, not political influence. But we were told we basically had to hire lobbyists."

That advice came from Brasif's South Florida attorney, Ronald Shapo. (Shapo did not return calls seeking comment.) It was Shapo, Pereira says, who decided to hire lobbyists Michael Benages and State Rep. Beryl Roberts-Burke, who is also the ex-wife of Commissioner James Burke.

When the selection committee, appointed by County Manager Vidal, ranked the three firms according to qualifications, Greyhound took first place, Brasif second, and DFI third. The rankings shocked DFI's president, Al Carfora. "We were very surprised," he says. "That same day we made a presentation to Delta Airlines for their terminals at JFK -- and we won those."

Carfora and partner Julio Rebull both blame the selection committee, specifically because none of its members had previous experience with the duty-free industry. "I don't think the most appropriate questions were asked," says Carfora. "There seemed to be a lack of desire, or a neglect, really, to understand what makes for a world-class facility."

Adds Rebull cryptically: "We felt there was something going on with the selection committee."

On the face of it, it does seem odd that Greyhound, a company the county's own consultants found to be inadequate, was suddenly ranked tops among its limited competitors. But given DFI's presentation before the selection committee, it is also easy to understand why the voting members were not impressed. DFI wasted 10 minutes of its allotted 30 by screening an inane video about the company, covering many of the same points Carfora had made in his opening remarks. When DFI officials did finally get around to talking about the operations at MIA, their suggestions for improving sales were silly and simplistic ("We'll let people touch the products"). And by the time a DFI representative began discussing minority participation, only two rushed minutes remained.

Arguably the best presentation was made by Allders International, which, just before being formally disqualified by the county attorney over the Cuban cigar rule, outlined not only a comprehensive overhaul of the duty-free shops, and a more aggressive marketing strategy, but also proposed a special job-training program for minority youths that would have offered nearly 300 jobs to inner-city kids.

A few days after the selection committee's rankings were announced, county officials opened the sealed bids stating the percentage each firm was willing to pay the county. Once again Greyhound finished first with a bid of 35.1 percent. DFI came in second with a bid of 33.1 percent. And Brasif was a distant third, having bid only 28 percent.

Brasif soon reported that it would not file a protest, thanked everyone for an interesting experience, and formally bowed out of contention. "We lost and we have to accept that," says Eduardo Pereira. "Naturally we didn't protest. We felt that wouldn't be right."

DFI, in contrast, promptly hired one of Brasif's lobbyists, Michael Benages, and declared that it would be fighting the selection of Greyhound with everything it could muster. It filed a formal bid protest, arguing that Greyhound hadn't complied with all rules and requests for documents. The issue went before a hearing examiner, but DFI lost.

Meanwhile, based on the committee rankings, and most importantly on the bid percentages, county manager Vidal has recommended to commissioners that Greyhound be awarded the contract. In order to overturn that recommendation and win the contract, DFI must persuade two-thirds of the commissioners -- nine of thirteen votes -- to support its point of view. As DFI and Greyhound square off, all those lobbyists and politically connected minority partners must begin earning their keep.

Chris Korge grows absolutely indignant at the suggestion that lobbyists have undue influence over Dade County. He doesn't even like the term lobbyist when describing his occupation. "I am a government litigator," Korge says, his voice leaping through the phone line with an aggressiveness that has made him one of Dade's most sought-after corporate advocates. "That's what I am. I am an expert in bidding and local government law. And people hire me because I'm good at what I do."

But Korge's perceived brilliance isn't the only reason people hire him or any other lobbyist. "Why do you hire lobbyists?" Korge asks rhetorically. "Because you know your opposition is going to hire them and so you'd better have someone on your side." In addition to being articulate spokesmen, they also offer familiarity with complex procedures and access to complex personalities. A politician's ego is a tricky thing around which to navigate. Ask J.P. Miquel. Since the fiasco of his aviation committee appearance last year, the Greyhound president has sworn he'll never attend another county commission meeting.

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