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."

Looking pensive, he cocks his head slightly. "To me, money is just a way of keeping a record of how successful you are," he says. "And I've been successful, which bothers some people. But I don't care what they say." A chuckle, followed by a shift of his Jabba the Hut-like girth. "But there was one time, after a Herald editorial, I called the editorial page editor and asked to come down and talk to the editorial staff. So we talked." A pause, a smile. "And on the way out, I told them, 'I really wanted to thank you guys, because, truthfully, I've got about twenty percent of the power you make me out to have. You guys have done a better job for me than any P.R. firm I could have hired.'"

While Zilber's stab at modesty is touching, it's not entirely on the mark. Zilber -- who at one time presided over an imposing empire of cabs and employees -- once wielded enormous power. That empire provided him with money to retain super-connected lobbyists such as Rick Sisser and the late Steve Ross, and with their help (and that of friendly politicians), Zilber was able to protect and further his interests by cleverly manipulating -- and in some cases defining -- the government regulations associated with the ground-transportation industry. Indeed, for a man who takes a jaundiced view of government mixing with business ("He doesn't think it has any place in business," explains Zilber's 33-year-old son Martin, an attorney), Ziggy Zilber got to be pretty good at figuring out how to use the system to get what he wanted.

In his mind, if you've got a good idea that can make money, you should be able to execute it your way. Period. This philosophy has proved to be both inspired and regrettable over the years. When he tried to tighten his hold on the taxi industry in the late Seventies and early Eighties, his competitors essentially forced him out of it; years later when he went into the jitney business, his attempts to exempt the minibuses from regulation so infuriated cabbies and transit workers that, after a protracted legislative brouhaha, he was driven out of that business, too.

Today, Zilber's businesses, which operate under the aegis of Metro Transportation Service, Inc., and which he controls with partners Eddie Steinberg and Martin Zilber, are smaller and fewer. In addition to running an upscale corporate-car livery operation and a growing medical-transportation dispatch business, he also provides, for a fee, a dispatch service to area cabbies. Financially speaking, Zilber's no failure; even though he may have been banished from certain arenas of ground transportation, he made a hell of a lot of money in his heyday. But he's not quite the player he once was, and in order to understand his decline, it's necessary to go back in time and learn the convoluted nature of the taxi business and Zilber's machinations within it.

Currently in Dade County there are 1827 taxi permits, all of them issued by the county, each worth approximately $35,000 to $40,000. But back in the late Fifties, the area's cab industry was somewhat medieval in nature. Like feudal barons, a small coterie of owners struggled with one another for hegemony. In 1957, Ziggy's father, Moyshe Zilber, moved to Miami with his wife and bought the four-cab Key Biscayne Taxi Company. Ziggy moved from Baltimore shortly thereafter, and, in addition to driving a cab, the nineteen-year-old became de facto operations director for the company, renamed Hurricane Taxi.

At the time Key Biscayne was in the boondocks: three hotels, one motel, a few restaurants, and one cab stand. Not that it was a total backwater. Zilber fondly remembers shuttling around Missouri senator Stuart Symington and actor Richard Widmark. Back then, though, after Easter the Key became a ghost town. "So," Zilber recalls now, "we looked elsewhere for business." Even though "looking elsewhere" wasn't exactly legal.

In those days each Dade County municipality sold taxi permits -- permits that allowed a taxi to pick up fares only in that specific city. Technically speaking, even though Key Biscayne was not a municipality, Hurricane cabbies were restricted to picking up fares that originated on that island. The Zilbers considered the system ridiculous, and so during the slack periods Ziggy would lead the tiny fleet's three other cabbies to adjacent Virginia Key and, depending on how you look at it, once there he either demonstrated entrepreneurial savvy or contempt for the law: The Hurricane cabs would swoop down on the Miami Seaquarium bus stop and offer to take waiting passengers downtown for a quarter cheaper than it cost to take the bus. And once in Miami, should the Hurricane cabbies find themselves hailed by pedestrians, they'd pick them up too.

While most area drivers were cowed by the prospect of getting fined for such activities, Zilber routinely kept hustling. "Yeah, you couldn't pick up anyone in the city of Miami legally," he notes now. "But being a good driver, I'd pick up anyone." Fines were cheap. He could recoup the costs easily.

During this time, the Miami phone book contained listings for a number of "Yellow Cab" companies, but the behemoth was Yellow Cab of Miami, which held the permits for nearly 300 taxis. In 1959, Yellow began selling its City of Miami permits at $8000 apiece. The Zilbers bought six off the bat and kept right on purchasing them. By 1961 they held over 40 Yellow permits, more than any other local taxi company owner. After Yellow sold off all of its permits, the various purchasers decided to come together in a co-op arrangement. While permit owners retained their financial independence, they elected to pool their money to fund a unified dispatch system. By the late Sixties, the Eisenberg family, once proprietors of a small cab stand, held over 60 Yellow permits; on Miami Beach, Sol Green's Central Cab had a virtual lock on business. Zilber, however, towered over them all: He ran Hurricane Taxi, Key Biscayne Taxi, Yellow Cab of Key Biscayne, Miami Dade Yellow Cab, and controlled about one-fifth of Yellow Cab of Miami -- 140 permits in all. As his father eased into semi-retirement, Ziggy took on more responsibility, eventually becoming the co-op's first president. Times were good.

But in 1970 this whole arrangement was thrown for a loop when the International Brotherhood of Railroad and Steamship Clerks union came to Miami to organize the area's cabbies. The union first set its sights on Yellow Cab, which immediately dug in its heels to fight the effort. "At Yellow, none of us had control over one another A I had my cabs, Les Eisenberg had his, other people had theirs," Zilber explains now. "But because we shared a radio dispatch system, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that we had to let our people vote [on whether to join the union]."

It was, Zilber recalls, a tense time, with cabbies split equally on the issue. The pro-union cabbies called a strike, which angered the anti-union drivers. One night at a Yellow lot on Le Jeune Road, about 100 cabbies gathered and began kicking around the idea of going out and beating up picketers. As Zilber, Eisenberg, and other Yellow owners tried to dissuade the cabbies from violence, a car of strikers pulled into the lot and shot out the tires of a cab. Then a car of nonstriking cabbies rolled in and began shooting; moments later the police showed up and opened fire.

A real melee ensued: Anti-union drivers shooting at pickets; pickets shooting at drivers; and police firing indiscriminantly. "All hell was breaking loose," he says. "I managed to crawl around to the back of the building. By the time it was over, one guy was dead, another wounded. The union got the drivers' vote, but they only lasted a couple of years. Taxi drivers are independent people. They like to do whatever they want, without a boss looking over their shoulder. The union became a boss."

While Zilber ultimately won when the union checked out in 1972, he realized that the cab business was no longer a mere business. It was an industry. And just as unions take an interest in industries, so do governments. Zilber wanted neither in his realm. So in 1972 he helped found the South Florida Taxicab Association, a permit-owners' trade group that lobbied to keep the cabs free from county regulation. While Zilber had proved himself adept at business, lobbying was new to him, so he retained the services of his friend Steve Ross.

"I guess you could say he taught me how to lobby, which to me is getting to know people and selling your point of view," observes Zilber. "I've always had an ability to get along with people, and my size never hurt -- people don't forget me."

Ross and Zilber went about pressing the flesh with Tallahassee legislators, and in 1975 the Florida legislature passed a law that forbade counties from taking over individual cities' taxi regulation. However, the counties still wielded the authority to regulate the taxi business in unincorporated areas. As a result, Dade County begin to issue permits in such areas for about $250 A peanuts compared to the $19,000 a Miami permit cost then. About this time, Zilber acquired Morse Taxi, whose cabs covered the municipalities of Surfside, Bal Harbour, and Bay Harbor Islands; he also snatched up 50 Dade County permits after the Broward-based Yellow Cab of Hollywood decided to cease business in Dade County and operate exclusively in Broward.

"So now I have these 50 Dade County permits and no idea what to do with them," Zilber says. "For about two to three months, I just kept 'em." Then something occurred to Zilber: Every cab operating out of Miami International Airport had its permit issued by the City of Miami. The airport, however, sat on ground in unincorporated Dade just outside city limits. Zilber figured, why not put the 50 county permits -- which cost next to nothing -- at the airport, and redeploy the city permit cabs downtown? It was virtually money for nothing. By relocating the pricier Miami permit cabs to the city, he could outnumber the competition, while the cheap county cabs would rake in regular, lucrative fares from the airport.

"So I went to the Segal brothers [Stanley, Norton, and Bill], who had the airport contract and who leased [the contract] to Yellow, and said, 'I'm gonna change cabs, any problems?'" relates Zilber. "They said, 'No legal problems but the drivers will go crazy. Do what you want.'" He did. And the drivers went crazy, with owners and drivers crying foul because Zilber was creating more competition. Some threatened legal action, citing unfair competition. Others threatened bodily harm. "The first county cab we put at the airport had its windshield smashed and tires slashed," Zilber notes. But he went ahead with his scheme anyway, and within a month he had an additional 38 cabs cruising downtown Miami, plus 38 cabs at the airport. Other owners followed suit, and within weeks a $250 county permit was fetching $4000.

As the Seventies drew to a close, Zilber seemed to have it all: city licenses, county licenses, multiple cab companies, top-flight lobbyists, and the presidencies of Yellow Cab and the South Florida Taxi Association. His son was off in Gainesville at the University of Florida, while he was living a comfortable life with his wife Linda in a spacious Bay Harbor Islands home. He was, however, spending more time out of town: His no-holds-barred approach to business had drawn the attention of many others in the nation's cab industry, and in 1981 he was elected president of the International Taxicab and Livery Drivers Association (ITLDA), a job that forced him to spend time lobbying in Washington, D.C.

But things began to change. While Zilber attended an ITLDA meeting in Boston shortly after the airport brouhaha, he was ousted from the presidency of the Yellow Cab back in Miami, largely owing to the efforts of fellow Yellow co-op participant Eisenberg. "I found it kind of funny," sniffs Zilber today. He could afford to find it funny, because while his cabs could no longer use the Yellow dispatch service, Zilber still held his numerous permits. And he simply turned around and repainted his Yellow cabs in the orange and white colors of his Hurricane Taxi service, sending them out on the streets of Miami, where they received orders from Hurricane's dispatchers.

However, he still wanted to expand his operations, and he hatched a hell of a scheme to do so. In 1981 the state law that severely curtailed the counties' authority to regulate taxis -- the one Zilber had helped to get passed six years earlier -- was up for review. Unless the legislature re-endorsed the law, it would die. This time around, he wanted it to perish. In a stark reversal of his previous position, he began lobbying the county to take control of cab regulation. He also began selling off his City of Miami permits. Zilber's gambit was simple: First, sell the Miami permits while they were hot. Next, convince the county to take over cab regulation, which would result in the county setting a cap on the number of permits and, in turn, raise their value; then sell the county permits high; and in a final master stroke, use political clout to get the county to reverse itself and deregulate. The latter move, he figured, would result in the devaluation of permits, which Zilber could then accrue in massive numbers.

In theory it was a brilliant plan. And it nearly worked. In early 1981, after the majority of his Miami permits had been sold at close to $20,000 each, Zilber managed to convince enough of his colleagues and commissioners of the benefits of county regulation; then he persuaded state legislators not to renew the 1975 law. And in late 1981 he began selling the county permits at a handsome profit. Taking a two-pronged approach for the next step of his plan, he not only started lobbying the county and state for deregulation, but also filed suit against the county, alleging it had no business regulating cabs.

The cab industry was stunned. It was as if someone had poured a pound of sugar in its gas tank. "There was a time when Ziggy was, essentially, a good man who drove a cab," recalls one of his competitors. "And over the years he had always characterized everything he did as something that was good for the industry. Maybe a few people will lose out, he'd say, but overall it'll be better. But this move was designed to benefit one person, and only one person: Ziggy. He conned us. His own industry. Fucked us."

The cabbies responded in force, sending in their own lobbyists to fight Zilber on the statewide legislative front, while the county, feeling taken advantage of, vigorously countered Zilber in the courtroom. When the dust ultimately settled, the cabbies and the county had won. Says Zilber today of the whole affair: "I made a bad business judgment."

On its face, Zilber's comment seems strangely understated. He was, after all, now completely bereft of taxi permits, which essentially eliminated him as a player in the industry. But although he didn't have as much power, he had a pile of money from his permit sales. So like any good businessman, he looked around for another investment, eventually finding it in Denver, which had a small but deregulated cab industry. Within a few years, 300 Zilber-owned cabs were cruising the streets of the Mile-High City.

As some in the local industry saw it, Zilber was more or less neutralized. While his Metro Transportation company was still raking in money as a dispatch service, his operation, though technologically advanced, still couldn't match the one at Yellow. But many others weren't inclined to write him off. Although he'd been defeated, it was hard to believe that a rapacious operator such as Zilber would pack it in here. He didn't. In 1986, five years after his ambitious regulation-deregulation gambit failed, Zilber rose from the ashes. His phoenix: jitneys.

In 1981 the state legislature had passed a law that made it illegal for counties to regulate "intercity" bus travel. Practically speaking, the law was designed to keep counties from overseeing bus routes between, say, Miami and Tampa. Read literally, however, the law offered other possibilities. Here's how Zilber read it: There were more than 25 incorporated cities in Dade County; cabs can be too expensive; the bus can take too long; might there be a third option? As it happened, he had a van-only passenger motor carrier (PMC) permit that allowed him to put as many minibuses, or jitneys, on the road as he wanted, just as long as they stuck to county-approved routes.

In theory, jitneys exist to service areas that are neglected -- or infrequently visited -- by other forms of transportation. But thanks to the vague wording of the 1981 law, Zilber concluded that the county really had no power to say where or how jitneys could operate. So Ziggy made the following deal with potential jitney drivers: Use your own vehicle, keep the fares, and pay me a fee for the privilege of operating under the Zilber-owned Metro Minibus flag. What happened next harked back to Zilber's old Hurricane cab-driving days at the Seaquarium: According to critics, Metro Minibuses were cherry-picking bus passengers and cab fares off the streets.

Zilber had started a trend. By 1991 Dade was awash in jitneys, and the county estimated it was losing nearly $400,000 a month in bus fares to the vans. Cabbies were feeling the pinch, too. A cartoon began making the rounds in cab and transit-worker circles that showed a gargantuan "Mr. Z" with the words "Jitney-Minibus Multi-Million $ Operation" on his gut. In his hand was a briefcase labeled "State Legislature," and suffocating in the folds of his voluminous belly was a small man with a briefcase that said "Dade County." But in a balloon blurb Mr. Z was whining, "You gotta open up your routes and help us out, pal -- we're really hurtin' out there!!"

Enough was enough for the cab industry and transit workers. They sent their lobbyists into battle once again. Zilber mobilized his minions, sending Steve Ross to handle the county, while Rick Sisser A an intimate of then-Senate president Gwen Margolis A worked Tallahassee. The cab/transit faction argued that the 1981 law was never meant to be applied as it was in Dade County; Zilber stood by his interpretation of the law. The first round went to Zilber, who, thanks to friends such as Margolis and Sen. Al Gutman of Miami, got a statewide bill passed that explicitly terminated Dade County's power to regulate jitneys.

The cabbies scored a symbolic victory at the county level, persuading the Metro-Dade Commission to pass a unanimous resolution urging the governor to veto the jitney bill. The cabbies became rankled, however, when unconfirmed reports filtered back to them that Commissioner Art Teele had been in Tallahassee lobbying for the jitney bill. Not that the cabbies were totally shocked by this supposed development: In 1985, Teele, along with ex-city manager Howard Gary, formed GT Transportation, Inc., which served as a Zilber subcontractor. (According to Zilber, the arrangement never went beyond the planning stages; Teele did not return calls for this story).

In June 1991, Gov. Lawton Chiles stuck a pin in Zilber's plan when he vetoed the jitney bill; the opposition forces claimed victory. But it was, at best, a Pyrrhic one. The county moved to crack down on any jitneys operating without a PMC license, but as fast as officials could impound the vehicles, the fines were paid and they were back out on the street. And Zilber was back in the legislature with another deregulation proposal. But with cabbies and transit workers continuing to squawk, and emboldened by the Miami Herald's editorial page shaming state and county officials for, as the paper put it, "kowtowing" to Zilber, the county flexed its muscles in March 1992 and revoked Zilber's PMC permit on the grounds that his contract drivers were in some cases unlicensed and unsafe. Unbowed, Zilber continued to press for deregulation in the 1993 legislative session.

"You've gotta like the guy because he brings such spirit to the process -- with Ziggy, the whole process is entertaining, but God, he kept me busy," says lobbyist Bob Levy, who, on behalf of the South Florida Taxi Association and Metro Transit Workers, fought against Zilber in Tallahassee. "His team's approach was sneaky -- he'd try to get what he wanted by dropping amendments into bills at 3:00 a.m. The last week of the session, four or five of us would have to stand up on the fourth floor [of the state capitol building] and pay attention to every new item."

In the end, Zilber decided simply to walk away from the jitney business. "If I'd been twenty years younger I'd have gone back to Tallahassee and gotten a bill passed," he sighs. "But it just wasn't worth it any more."

Leave it to Mother Nature to come to Zilber's aid. In the summer of 1992, Zilber was reeling. With the jitney bill on the ropes and his PMC license revoked, another of his companies, Comprehensive Paratransit Services (CPS), came under fire for its stewardship of the county's elderly and disabled transportation contract. In the mid-Seventies, when the federally supported county contract was first offered, Zilber was one of only two bidders who sought to snag it. He won the contract and had held it ever since. But over the years complaints about CPS -- whose job it was to provide low-cost transportation to the handicapped and elderly -- piled up at the Metro-Dade Transit Agency. So many complaints, in fact, that then-county commissioner Charles Dusseau made noises about bidding out the contract for the first time in fifteen years.

And then complete and utter destruction turned into Zilber's salvation. On August 23, 1992, Hurricane Andrew devastated southern Dade County, throwing everything, notably transportation, into disarray. As is the case when any major disaster strikes, officials from the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) flew down to Miami to coordinate relief operations. Zilber seized yet another opportunity and pitched to beleaguered federal officials a plan to contract his fleet of minibuses, operating with emergency licenses, to provide a temporary system for the ravaged area. They came to terms, with approximately twenty jitney companies in on the action -- all working for Zilber, who brokered the deal.

But despite the business boon during the aftermath of the hurricane, Zilber's fortunes again waned. After commission elections in the fall of 1992, incoming freshman Commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla decided to review CPS's service record. What struck him most was the plethora of complaints.

"Absolutely, there were complaints," admits Zilber. "We moved 2000 people a day and got about 40 or 50 complaints. So we had 1950 people each day who had no problems. It was a vocal two percent."

Others, however, differ with this characterization. According to a county commission staffer who requested anonymity, the complaints about CPS -- abusive or inept drivers, blind and paralyzed people having to wait for hours on street corners -- were myriad. "When de la Portilla came in, there were literally boxes of complaints," the staffer says. "It's not that they ran a horrible service. I remember after the hurricane they worked hard to make sure their Special Transportation Service [STS] clients were taken care of. But there were some real problems."

Ultimately, de la Portilla prevailed. In 1994, after seventeen years, CPS lost the STS contract to rival Comsis when it was put out to bid, largely owing to the efforts of the young commissioner.

Although that loss had an impact, Zilber's business interests are hardly on the skids. From the fourth-floor offices of a building east of the airport, attorney Martin Zilber has been overseeing the evolution and diversification of Metro Transportation Services. Right now Martin's highest priority is the development of HealthTrans, a medical transportation company.

Among industry and government types, opinion on the younger Zilber is split: While some consider him more polished than his father, others characterize him as more ruthless. It's not a charge Martin completely disagrees with. "He's by far too nice, too caring, too generous," says Martin of his father. "If someone calls and says they're starting a transportation company and asks him for advice, he'll give it. Free. Me, I'd say, I'll help you, but for a consulting fee -- or you make us partners."

Standing in the middle of a low-lighted room occupied by about two dozen sophisticated color computers and their earpiece-wearing operators, the younger Zilber explains that for him and his father, taxis and jitneys aren't the future: Medical transport is. "We're talking to hospitals, HMOs, and individual doctor's practices about providing not only nonemergency transportation, but also helping them with routing, billing, marketing A merging technology with transportation," Martin explains. So far, he adds, deals have been stitched up in Denver, Kansas City, Tampa, and Connecticut; he hints that similar contracts are in the works for Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, and Houston.

But, he continues, this diversification doesn't mean the Zilbers are going to stop doing business in Dade. "Of course, any time the [Zilber] name is attached to anything, everyone else thinks its part of a plot," he sighs.

To wit: At that December 5 Metro-Dade Commission meeting -- the meeting in which the "federal case" came up -- item 7 (T) of the agenda dealt with the granting of a PMC license to the Zilber-owned Corporate Car USA. Corporate Car uses unmarked sedans to transport customers who pay an advance fee for something more upscale than a taxi. The Zilbers say they'd also like to have vans and minibuses available for their corporate clients. But according to lobbyist Bob Levy -- whose clients include Les Eisenberg, Diego Feliciano, and Al Edden, the respective heads of Yellow Cab, Super Yellow Cab, and the county's Transit Workers Union -- this new Zilber move is mere subterfuge. "I see this as a backdoor attempt to secure the same PMC they were denied overwhelmingly," Levy informed Edden in a recent memo. Also in the memo, Levy pointed out that on Corporate Car's PMC application to Metro-Dade's Consumer Services Department, the company indicates its service will be based on "demand response."

"There is no definition of 'demand response,'" wrote Levy, "and as far as we can tell a street hail is a 'demand response.' We must stop this backdoor attempt to secure what they have rightfully been denied."

According to Ziggy Zilber, Levy and his clients are delusional: "Everything I do is a way of sneaking something in, my competitors think. This is the luxury sedan business. I don't know what demand response is. If you say we need a car in an hour, we'll do it. And we have the opportunity to do van work. Let's say you have nine corporate types in town who want to go to a ball game. We'd like to be able to let them hire a van. So we're applying for a permit. Believe me, when I'm ready to go into the jitney business again, they'll know it."

But the opposition isn't buying it. "Part of what's helped Ziggy become so successful is how he disarms people," notes a competitor. "He's brutally honest A to a point. He'll be so up-front with you at first, you're thrown off by how frank he is. And then it gets to the point where he'll tell you he's going to pull the rug out from under you, and you don't even feel it. That's what he's doing here."

The county commission, however, didn't see it that way. In spite of an hour's worth of articulate, vociferous protest from transportation company owners and workers, the commission voted 11-0 to grant Corporate Car USA its PMC license on December 20. "He won," allows a competitor. "Even today he still won. Amazing. He can be anything he wants.

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