Flying Blind

Homestead Air Force Base: Hundreds of millions of dollars. An arrogant developer. Nine compliant politicians. A vote taken so late at night you never knew what hit you.

"We're not in a marketing mood," Judy answered.
Despite the grilling by Kaplan, Dick Judy's appearance before the county commission was remarkably amicable. "Let me just take this opportunity on behalf of all the citizens of this community to thank you for all the years of citizenship you have provided," Chairman Teele had said before leading the audience in a round of applause. "You've done real good and we're proud of you."

"It really is a pleasure," Judy responded, acknowledging the crowd. "It's been some time since I've appeared before the Dade County Commission."

The genial greeting caused many observers to scratch their heads in wonder. Wasn't this the same Dick Judy who had been forced to quit his county post in 1989 after revelations of questionable conduct, including the unauthorized expenditure of $300,000 for a highly speculative feasibility study, allegations that he and his aides routinely ignored county bidding procedures and that they spent $32 million hiring friends, neighbors, and acquaintances as consultants?

And wasn't this the same Dick Judy who had been dubbed "the Czar" by friend and foe alike for his autocratic management style at Miami International Airport?

The answer, of course, was yes, but this meeting marked Judy's triumphant return from exile. After his ouster from Dade County, he ended up in Hong Kong, working as a consultant in the construction of a new three-billion-dollar airport. His brashness drew criticism there as well, but the airport project's corporate affairs manager, Phillip Bruce, says Judy left on good terms in 1994.

This current honeymoon between Judy and the county commission may not last long. As the meeting in South Dade droned on and the questioning turned contentious, Judy reverted to his old habit of snapping at commissioners and implying they didn't know what they were talking about. On several occasions, HABDI lobbyist Miguel DeGrandy was forced to gently nudge him away from the microphone.

Later, outside the gym, Judy noted that Miami International Airport is now overrun with lobbyists and influence peddlers, a situation that was not tolerated when he ran the place. "That's where my name, the Czar, came from," he barked. "I kept the airport clean. I was a very powerful, strong leader and I demanded perfection." He said he looks forward to bringing those characteristics to the Homestead air base, where he won't have to answer to any elected commissioners, and where, he gloated, "I can still be a czar!"

About halfway through the long commission meeting, Judy sat down next to one of the opponents to HABDI, Debbi Ventimiglia, an active member of the Concerned Citizens of South Dade. According to Ventimiglia, Judy motioned to Concerned Citizens president Chris Spaulding and whispered conspiratorially: "You know your leader tried to cut his own deal."

Ventimiglia said she was dumbfounded -- not by Judy's allegation, which she had heard before, but by his stupidity. She turned to him and said, "Don't you know that Chris is my husband?" At that, Ventimiglia recalls, Judy beat a hasty retreat.

HABDI officials have made a concerted effort to undermine the credibility of their opponents; the allegations of Spaulding's secret motives represented one of those attempts.

Spaulding does admit he met with Alan Ruvin, one of HABDI's principal consultants, in either August or September 1994. Former county aviation director Rick Elder had set up his own meeting with HABDI, Spaulding recalls, and invited him to come along. At that time Spaulding was a member of the Homestead Chamber of Commerce and thought it would be a good idea to meet with the HABDI group to determine their interest in working with people in South Dade. "I never asked for any money," Spaulding stresses. "There was never any discussion about any sort of a financial arrangement or any sort of job. We left it open, and they never called back."

Ventimiglia says that sort of rebuff was a common message to people in South Dade, and it certainly contributed to the sense of resentment Homestead residents developed toward HABDI and the county commission "HABDI was never interested in being a part of this community," Ventimiglia argues.

In South Dade particularly, where families are likely to go back several generations in Homestead, a sense of community is very important. Spaulding and Ventimiglia both grew up around the air base. As a teenager in the Sixties, Spaulding was a member of the base's Civil Air Patrol, which allowed him to hang out at the base movie theater and bowling alley.

Ventimiglia was part of a chorus that used to sing from time to time at the base chapel. She can even remember standing on the tarmac, playing the piccolo with the South Dade High marching band in 1972 when President Nixon visited the base.

Spaulding and Ventimiglia even had their wedding reception, sixteen years ago, at the base officers' club. "Down here the air base is not just a piece of real estate," Ventimiglia notes.

"It's part of the fabric of the community," Spaulding adds, finishing her thought. "And HABDI never understood that."

When county commissioners granted HABDI exclusive negotiating rights for the Homestead air base, they also effectively neutralized any bargaining leverage that the county might have had. That lopsided arrangement worked well for HABDI's chief negotiators, attorney Ramon Rasco and consultant Dick Judy, the latter of whom, sources say, was an intimidating presence during the many negotiating sessions.

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