Fare Trade

Ziggy Zilber built a lean, mean, ground-transportation empire, making money and enemies, and working the politicians like a well-oiled machine

Tuesday, December 5, 10:50 p.m. The doors to the Metro-Dade County Commission chambers swing open and a half-dozen men walk in. Art Teele glances across the room. He does not look pleased. Not that the casual observer would immediately pick up on this. A master pol like Teele does not openly broadcast his discomfort. But there's a clear hint of surprise in the commission chairman's eyes. "Well," he says, his expression and tone sardonic, "we have some very distinguished gentlemen in the room."

One of these "distinguished gentlemen" smiles ever so slightly, while another bristles. They stop where they are and just look at Teele, who's got a cat-that-just-ate-the-canary grin plastered across his face. "Maybe," suggests Teele, "we'd better talk about the 'federal case' later."

To someone not familiar with commission-speak, Teele's comment comes across as enigmatic: The item currently up for discussion by the commission deals with the granting of a county van passenger motor carrier vehicle license to Corporate Car USA, not with any "federal case"; the group of men, in fact, have come to the commission meeting to offer arguments against granting that license. But Teele's comment elicits a smile from Commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla. Like Teele, de la Portilla is an attorney, and he understands the chairman's code words for a matter that has the potential to go from a molehill to mountain.

"Ah, the 'federal case,'" de la Portilla chuckles.
At the mention of "federal case," two commissioners get up and quietly leave. A quorum is no longer present. Teele speaks: "Y'know what, gentleman, the meeting ends at 11:00 promptly. I'm sorry. You'll be first up next time." Then Teele picks up his phone. The men in suits smile and exchange knowing glances. Then they take a look around the room. One of them looks amused when he says sarcastically, "I wonder who he's calling?"

The smart money would say the chairman was on the horn with Corporate Car USA owner Sigmund "Ziggy" Zilber, who, at that very moment, lay in bed in room 801 of Miami Beach's Mt. Sinai Medical Center with kidney problems. And while the prospect of Teele calling the corpulent, bedridden Zilber -- who some have called Miami's "800-pound gorilla of private transportation" -- has a certain conspiratorial flair to it, Zilber maintains that at the time Teele made the phone call in question, he, Zilber, was happily asleep. "It's not that big of a deal," the 57-year old Zilber shrugs.

There was a time when it would have been hard to imagine a Zilber item not sailing through the commission -- back in simpler days, when the population here was smaller and the wiring diagram of power brokers was less complex. That was when Zilber could call in his political markers with ease. And oh did he ever: By giving freely of his time and his pocketbook, and by taking advantage of every possible business opportunity that presented itself, Ziggy Zilber was considered by some to be the godfather of Dade County ground transportation -- the titan of taxis, a man who could be a doting father one minute and a ruthless businessman the next. Since the late Sixties, he has won and lost control of the local cab industry, won and lost control of the area's jitney markets, won and lost control of a lucrative federal contract for transporting the handicapped and elderly, and won and lost the favors of various get-things-done politicians. And while the ailing Zilber's clout is still formidable, recent times have, to some extent, weakened his pull.

Be that as it may, even though the now wheelchair-bound Zilber is in failing health, his opponents charge that he's trying to pull one last end run -- a surreptitious re-entry into the jitney business after the county booted him out of it more than three years ago.

"Greed is what motivates him, pure and simple," contends one of his many detractors, who, because of Zilber's perceived power, asked not to be named. "He doesn't give a shit about anything or anyone but himself. He'll screw anyone who stands in his way of making money, and he's gonna try and screw the cabbies, the bus drivers, the county, again." A pause, followed by a contemptuous snort. "He doesn't recognize limits."

It's a cool, quiet December evening, and from a large, comfortable chair in his Mystic Point apartment, Ziggy Zilber muses on his life. At first glance it might be hard to take Zilber seriously: One has to fight the temptation to put a fez on his head and a fly swatter in his hand, because then he'd be a dead ringer for Sydney Greenstreet in Casablanca. "I've always enjoyed good food," he says, patting his gut.

Zilber speaks fondly of the twenty years he advised a high school fraternity and reminisces about his efforts to help create both the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Tourist Development Council. He is not, he says, the ruthless monster some make him out to be. "Nobody can truthfully say I stepped on them," Zilber notes. "Did some people get hurt from the things I did? I'm sure they did. But I've also made a lot of people wealthy. And I have given things back to the community. Honestly, a lot of my success comes from the fact that I was here at the right time, when it was small, when everyone knew each other."

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