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.

At four o'clock in the morning, County Commissioner Bruce Kaplan looked beat. He got up to stretch his legs and walked along the makeshift dais set up in the gymnasium at Southridge High School in Cutler Ridge. As he passed his commission colleagues, he tapped several of them on the shoulder, as if to see if they were still awake. Then he ventured onto the gym floor, amid the scattered remains of several hundred folding chairs.

Twelve hours earlier those chairs, and the bleachers behind them, had been packed with approximately 700 citizens. Now they were largely empty, the crowd having dwindled to an obsessed core of about 75 people who weren't going anywhere until the commission made a decision.

Kaplan eventually plopped himself down in one of the chairs farthest from the dais, which offered him a different perspective on the proceedings. As he watched the debate drag on, lobbyist Armando Gutierrez strolled over -- in part to say hello, but also to see if he could still count on Kaplan's vote. As Gutierrez approached, Kaplan's face grew taut. "Arrogance!" he shouted without any further greeting. "You are so fucking arrogant that you would risk losing this lease."

Gutierrez laughed nervously and playfully tried to put his hands around Kaplan's throat, as if this were some well-worn comedy routine. But Kaplan kept up his verbal barrage and eventually Gutierrez retreated.

Only one issue was on the commission agenda that night of January 10: whether to grant a group of Dade developers a 70-year lease to privatize a large portion of Homestead Air Force Base. The developers, led by Carlos Herrera, president of the politically powerful Latin Builders Association, had been negotiating the pact with the county for more than a year. This South Dade meeting was supposed to be the final hurdle before approval for Herrera's group, known as Homestead Air Base Developers Inc., and commonly referred to as HABDI (pronounced hab-dee).

The Dade County Commission had never in its history convened a meeting in South Dade but did so on this occasion in an effort to placate growing citizen resentment of HABDI's anticipated selection. The anger of South Dade residents had intensified dramatically during the preceding months. They were furious with the politicians at county hall for handing over this base -- without competitive bidding and without community input -- to a group of well-heeled political insiders. To the citizens of Homestead, the base represented more than just a regional economic engine. It was an intimate part of their lives, an institution that helped define them as a community. Even Commissioner Alex Penelas, a long-time HABDI supporter, had recently acknowledged that the selection process was wrong, and that a cloud now hung over the commission as a result.

And as happens so often in Dade County, the debate concerning the project had taken on an ethnic tone: Some HABDI opponents had made it clear they didn't want a bunch of "Hialeah Cubans" invading their neighborhood. Many HABDI supporters, however, were just as vitriolic and had been using Spanish-language radio to denounce all opponents as bigots.

But those volatile exchanges faded into the background during the commission meeting as Herrera began to face a more immediate problem. It boiled down to the issue that had so irritated Kaplan: arrogance.

For months County Manager Armando Vidal and his staff had been asking HABDI to provide crucial financial information about the project and about HABDI's partners. His staff needed these documents in order to evaluate the group's ability to meet specific commitments outlined in the proposed lease, commitments that were considered essential.

HABDI, however, had refused to cooperate.
At about 7:00 p.m., when Vidal admitted that HABDI had not complied with the county's "numerous requests" for the information, the commission meeting erupted.

"Here we are about to vote on a lease when we don't have the basic information on the financial capabilities of the principal individuals," complained Katy Sorenson, who has been the commission's most consistent critic of HABDI. "This is absurd. This is a travesty."

"This isn't some mysterious kind of request that has popped up at the eleventh hour," added Commissioner Dennis Moss, whose district includes the air base. "This has been a request that has been made time and time and time again. It has always been an issue." Moss then posed a disturbing question: If HABDI was acting with such contempt for the county at this time -- when the commission still held the threat of rejection -- how trustworthy and cooperative would HABDI be once the lease was signed?

Hours later, as the criticism continued, Commissioner Javier Souto, who had supported HABDI in the past, had this to say: "I don't know if it is the time of night, but things are becoming unreal here. I don't understand -- and I don't think most of us understand -- what is going on here. It's like flying an airplane . . . by the instruments, but then the instruments don't work." For Souto, the county manager and his staff were the commission's instruments, but incomplete information caused them to malfunction.

"The instruments don't work and we are in heavy clouds. . . . Well, the clouds are getting thicker and thicker. Am I going to vote for this?" he asked rhetorically. "Am I responsible as an elected official voting for something when I don't know what the hell is going on? Do we know what is going on? Does anyone here know what's going on? Nobody knows what's going on.

"We're elected by thousands of people," Souto continued. "Are we going to vote for something that we don't know what we are voting on? Is that what we do with the trust that is deposited on us by the people?"

Returning to his flight analogy, he concluded, "We're flying a plane by the instruments and the instruments do not work. This plane is going to hell!"

Carlos Herrera was not expecting this sort of reception. "Oh, man," he moaned in a corner of the gym at about 2:00 a.m. "I should have stayed in the private sector."

A short time later one of Herrera's partners, Camilo Jaime, also expressed concerns about the eventual outcome. "People keep talking about the so-called influential Latin Builders [Association] and how this was a done deal," he said. "I guess we're not so influential."

Three more hours would pass before a vote brought the anxiety to an end. In the meantime, though, an enormously ambitious and potentially lucrative project teetered in the balance. Under the proposed lease, HABDI would control more than 1300 acres of the base and would develop air cargo and maintenance facilities, a commercial passenger terminal, and an industrial office park. Over the next fifteen to twenty years, county officials envisioned Homestead growing to become Dade's second major airport. The long-term estimated value to the developers: between $500 and $700 million.

Politically, the HABDI partners had reason to be confident. Going into the meeting, they felt certain they could count on support from four commissioners: James Burke, Natacha Millan, Pedro Reboredo, and Gwen Margolis. They also believed they had the support of Bruce Kaplan and Alex Penelas. Since the day eighteen months ago that the commission granted HABDI exclusive rights to negotiate a lease for the air base, those six commissioners had consistently been advocates. Their continued backing meant that HABDI needed only one more vote for the required majority.

But they also realized they had four committed votes against them: Katy Sorenson, Dennis Moss, Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, and Art Teele.

That left three commissioners up for grabs: Betty Ferguson, Javier Souto, and Maurice Ferre.

In the weeks leading up to the commission meeting, members of HABDI's team, led by lobbyist Miguel DeGrandy, had been meeting with commissioners, shoring up support among the HABDI faithful and hoping to sway a few of the undecided. But they could not ignore the potential trouble that could be caused by the organized opposition, a group called the Concerned Citizens of South Dade. Alex Penelas in particular seemed vulnerable to pressure.

Penelas's (now declared) ambitions to be elected county mayor later this year had landed him in a dilemma. He is expected to receive strong financial backing from the rich coffers of the Latin Builders Association, and he certainly could not risk jeopardizing HABDI's ultimate victory. On the other hand, the countywide vote for mayor meant he could ill afford to alienate thousands of citizens in South Dade. So he proposed to broker a compromise.

Chris Spaulding, president of Concerned Citizens of South Dade, met twice with Penelas, though he says he was suspicious of the commissioner's motives. The second meeting took place just three days before the commission vote. Also present were Carlos Herrera, Miguel DeGrandy, and other HABDI representatives. During a three-hour session at Penelas's North Dade district office, the commissioner proposed to open the project to competitive bidding.

At first Spaulding was intrigued, but he soon realized that the proposal was designed in such a way as to virtually guarantee HABDI's eventual selection. Spaulding concluded that Penelas was more interested in South Dade votes than in a true compromise. "I can't help it if people are going to look at what I did cynically," Penelas counters. "My efforts were sincere."

As the commission meeting was called to order at Southridge High, the chances of a dramatic showdown seemed to have increased from possible to probable. Both supporters and opponents of HABDI did their best to fill the gymnasium with advocates. Early in the meeting a group of nearly 100 Hispanic agricultural workers marched in single file, all of them wearing yellow anti-HABDI signs pinned neatly to their shirts. They filled a section of the bleachers. Not one of them approached the microphone to speak during the public hearing, and before midnight they stood and left together.

A knowledgeable source within Concerned Citizens said the workers had been paid by a wealthy local farmer to attend the meeting. Chris Spaulding, while neither confirming nor denying that account, later said, "We, meaning Concerned Citizens, did not pay anyone to sit at that meeting and it was not done at our request."

HABDI supporters also reportedly brought in a few ringers. One black woman wearing a red pro-HABDI T-shirt explained that she was really from Liberty City and, along with about two dozen others, had been paid to be there as part of a church fundraiser.

Despite such shenanigans, most people were intensely interested in the proceedings -- perhaps none more so than the team from HABDI. Sitting together in their dark suits, they resembled a corporate SWAT team -- lawyers, lobbyists, accountants, investors, financial advisers, real estate appraisers, aviation consultants, marketing consultants, military-base-conversion consultants.

They brought with them a fancy, computer-generated slide show, handouts, and a coterie of surprise guest speakers. They had everything a commissioner might want, except for one thing: those all-important financial documents.

The county manager and the staff of the aviation department had been requesting two key pieces of information for more than a year. First, county officials wanted to see financial statements outlining the personal wealth and holdings of the three principal HABDI partners, Carlos Herrera, Camilo Jaime, and Pedro Adrian. These statements would have to be prepared by a certified public accountant and their accuracy verified by each man. They were necessary because Herrera, Jaime, and Adrian, as part of their proposal, had personally pledged a total of $15.3 million to the project.

Second, the county wanted a "pro forma," a detailed financial plan demonstrating that the developers had carefully considered all aspects of the project and its economic viability. The pro forma, which estimates costs and revenues over a number of years, is a complex document that can take weeks to prepare, but it is also essential in marketing any major development project to potential investors.

In November 1994, when HABDI's partners submitted a broad proposal for the base, they included a pro forma. But a year later, when formal lease negotiations had finally been completed, the county manager asked for a new pro forma that reflected the substantially changed agreement. In addition, the manager informed the partners that they needed to provide certified personal financial statements and not merely letters of credit, as they had done earlier.

That last request touched off considerable debate among the HABDI partners, according to sources familiar with the discussions. All three men are established developers in Dade County, and Herrera and Adrian did not like the prospect of having their personal financial histories become a matter of public record. Jaime reportedly said he didn't mind, and he freely turned over to HABDI's attorneys his tax returns. But Adrian in particular was opposed to the idea; Herrera sided with him. As a group they decided to ignore the request for as long as possible.

At one point during HABDI's presentation at the meeting, the developers' financial adviser, Howard Gary, held up a large yellow envelope and told commissioners it contained the elusive financial statements for the three principal investors. He said he was ready to share the information with the county manager right then, during the meeting. And for a few minutes, members of the manager's staff huddled with Gary at a corner of the stage, next to a row of potted palms, and thumbed through the documents.

But the thought of reviewing complex financial records in the middle of a stressful meeting, in the dead of night, apparently struck County Manager Vidal as ludicrous. When it became apparent that HABDI was trying to force county staffers to endorse the documents as being sufficient, he announced that he would need at least 30 days to study them.

Regarding the pro forma, HABDI officials maintained that they did not want to prepare such a complicated document until after the lease was approved and all the terms and conditions were specified. To do otherwise, HABDI lobbyist Miguel DeGrandy told the commission, would be the same as trying to take a picture of a moving object A it would turn out fuzzy and unclear.

But County Manager Vidal expected HABDI to prepare a pro forma based on the final draft of the lease completed in November. Obviously the numbers might change, but at least it would have given his staff and the commission confidence that HABDI was carefully analyzing the lease and their own development proposal.

Ultimately, though, the decision came down to money. Herrera did not want to spend the $150,000 it would take to produce the pro forma until he absolutely had to.

As a result the HABDI team provoked yet another round of negative publicity, reinforcing the impression that these developers are incredibly arrogant. Worse, the intransigence made HABDI's supporters on the commission appear servile. "This commission is not going to look very good no matter how we frame it," said Chairman Art Teele, referring to HABDI'S refusal to provide the financial records in advance of the meeting. "Every commissioner here is going to have to face the public and explain how we could vote in favor of a $700 million deal without there being anybody from the county who had reviewed the financials."

Sources within HABDI's team confirm that in the days leading up to the January 10 meeting, there was a growing concern that the issue of financial documents threatened to overshadow the debate on the lease. While they hoped their offer to produce the financial statements to the manager on the night of the meeting would satisfy that portion of the request, they knew there was no way to produce a proper pro forma in a matter of days.

So they adopted a strategy that might be described as razzle-dazzle A the surprise announcement of a last-minute investor whose financial credentials were so impeccable that the commission could never again question HABDI's viability.

During the previous four months, HABDI had been engaged in preliminary discussions with a company called American Logistics Services (ALS), a firm that develops aviation-maintenance facilities at airports throughout Latin America. ALS was an attractive investor for HABDI because the company is owned in part by ServAir Inc., which in turn is owned by the Raytheon Corp., a multibillion-dollar, multinational company that last year posted profits of $800 million. If HABDI could somehow attach Raytheon's name to the project, success might be assured.

What had been very tentative discussions suddenly became an all-out push to secure an agreement with American Logistics. Just 24 hours before the commission meeting, ALS signed a general agreement with HABDI to become a partner in the Homestead air base proposal. But so preliminary was the agreement that officials from HABDI, ALS, and Raytheon were still negotiating details during the car ride to the commission meeting in South Dade.

This frantic maneuvering was not revealed to commissioners. Rather, when HABDI announced that ALS would be a partner (and mentioned several times that ALS was a subsidiary of Raytheon), the dais buzzed with excitement. Maurice Ferre even chided HABDI for not making commissioners aware sooner of this major development.

But Raytheon may not be the corporate white knight some commissioners were hoping for. In fact, the extent of ALS's involvement was never even discussed at the meeting. According to sources familiar with the agreement, ALS has only consented to invest between $200,000 and $300,000 in the project -- a pittance in light of HABDI's estimate that $187 million will have to be spent in the next fifteen years for the development to be successful.

Of the 90 minutes HABDI spent making its presentation to the commission, just 10 were devoted to the most intriguing question about that $187 million -- where would it come from? HABDI's financial consultant, Howard Gary (who was Miami city manager when Ferre was mayor), explained that ownership of the project will be divided among three groups:

Hispanics will control 51 percent and will need to raise $15.3 million, principally from Herrera, Jaime, and Adrian.

African Americans will have an opportunity to own 25 percent by coming up with an investment of $7.5 million.

Residents of South Dade will be offered up to 24 percent of the project for $7.2 million.

That adds up to $30 million in cash, which would then be used to borrow or leverage another $90 million, for a total of $120 million. The remaining $67 million, Gary explained, would come from a combination of state and federal grants, revenue bonds, and from money generated by the airport itself once it is open for business.

Gary said he believes the Hispanic investors have more than enough cash to meet their commitment of $15.3 million and claimed that Herrera and Jaime have a combined net worth in excess of $50 million. (He did not provide any information about Adrian's net worth.)

However, Gary did not make any guarantees regarding the $14.7 million needed from South Dade residents and blacks, though he did say that HABDI officials would first try to raise money from South Florida blacks before looking throughout the state or around the nation for interested investors.

How quickly HABDI will need to raise this initial $30 million in cash is not clear. The only requirements are that within 90 days of signing the lease, HABDI must deposit in an escrow account $8.24 million in cash and that during the first seven years they must spend a total of $16 million for improvements to the base.

Critics of the plan, including attorney George Knox, the lobbyist hired by South Dade residents to argue their case, say that HABDI's initial cash investment is too small to warrant granting them control over such a valuable piece of public real estate. The Federal Aviation Administration, which must approve the lease, has expressed the same concern but is withholding judgment until the agreement has been concluded.

Gary was unmoved by such misgivings, and in closing offered this endorsement: "I've taken the lease to Wall Street and they've told me it is financeable."

When commissioners had a chance to ask questions, Bruce Kaplan jumped on Gary's final statement about Wall Street, suggesting it was exceedingly vague. "'Take it to Wall Street,'" Kaplan scoffed. "It gives it a sense of confidence but what does it really mean?" Eventually Gary acknowledged that HABDI and the proposed lease in fact had no commitments of any sort from anyone on Wall Street.

HABDI officials also faced tough questioning regarding their marketing strategy. Several times during its presentation, the group's chief aviation consultant, Richard "Dick" Judy, Dade County's former embattled aviation director, talked about signing up various small commercial carriers to fly in and out of the base.

"Like which carriers?" Kaplan asked.
"I don't think that's appropriate at this time," Judy said, allowing that he would be willing to tell the manager privately.

"Well, the manager is not voting on this," Kaplan shot back. "We are. And I would very much like to know what your plans are -- concretely, specifically. Who is going to fill the voids?"

Judy thought about it for a moment. "Well, I must say to you," he began, "we do not have air carriers lined up to begin using this new airport. We've been concentrating on the lease." He added that the commission "has to have some trust" in HABDI's ability to find tenants.

"We've heard that before," Kaplan groaned. The commissioner then argued that Miami International Airport still has an abundance of maintenance and cargo space left over from the demise of Eastern and Pan American airlines. "Who do you envision occupying the maintenance space?" Kaplan asked again.

"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.

Still, the final draft of the proposed lease was hailed by county staff and the developers as a fair and equitable document for both sides. ("Compared to what?" Katy Sorenson frequently asked. "Since we don't have anything to compare it to, we will never know unless we reject this proposal, go back to an open-planning process, a competitive-bidding process, and do it the right way.")

The South Dade commission meeting, however, brought to light several significant shortcomings. For instance, the lease failed to address the county's "responsible bidders" ordinance, which guarantees union wages for workers. The lease also fails to adequately guarantee that HABDI would develop the base in a timely manner in order to keep up with the demand for new facilities. And there were no firm commitments to the creation of jobs. Commissioner Ferre also wanted to increase the county's options to buy back the lease from Herrera sometime in the future. Under the original draft, the county could take back the land only after 30 years.

In each instance, during sometimes harried discussions in the corners of the school gym, HABDI was pressed into making impromptu concessions. Because of the antipathy among commissioners arising from HABDI's failure to present financial statements, Carlos Herrera was warned by his advisers that if he became too obstinate on these other issues he risked losing the entire lease.

Chairman Art Teele had his own questions about what kind of corporate citizen HABDI might be under the proposed lease. Specifically, Teele wanted to know if HABDI planned to pay taxes to the local school system. The county manager's staff, as well as members of the county attorney's office, seemed shocked; they said they had always envisioned HABDI paying taxes.

But Teele countered that it wasn't clear in the lease. He had reviewed the document with several tax attorneys and it was their opinion the wording was so vague that HABDI could argue it was exempt. Teele then called up HABDI's attorneys. "You can clarify this issue," he said. "Is it your client's intent to pay ad valorem taxes as it relates to the school board?"

After several minutes of conferring with Herrera, Ramon Rasco stepped up to the microphone. "It is our client's intent to comply with the tax laws," Rasco said, "as well as avail itself of whatever opportunities there are under the tax laws. The lease is a complicated document."

"Is it your client's intention," Teele restated slowly, "to pay ad valorem taxes for schools and school education in Dade County under this lease?"

"Will you allow me a minute?" Rasco asked before huddling again with Herrera and the others. As the HABDI group conferred, Teele charged that HABDI had knowingly tried to avoid paying taxes by including vague language in the lease. "This has been artfully drafted as a major piece of litigation that will go on as long as this lease goes on," he declared.

After an exceptionally long pause, and a fair amount of head counting to see who would might go against them if they refused, HABDI agreed to pay school taxes on any improvements they make to the base.

Ten minutes later, at 5:40 in the morning, the Dade County Commission voted to award the lease to HABDI. Nine members of the commission -- Alex Penelas, Maurice Ferre, Natacha Millan, James Burke, Betty Ferguson, Pedro Reboredo, Bruce Kaplan, Gwen Margolis, and Javier Souto -- decided they could approve the agreement now and worry about financial questions later. Burke, in fact, argued that the entire discussion of HABDI's financial strength was unimportant; he referred to it as a "minutia."

On March 5 the commission will convene to take a final vote on the lease. By then it is expected that HABDI officials will have finally provided their financial records and the county manager and his staff will have had time to review them. If the commission decides that HABDI has met all requirements, the lease will become final. But if the commission is unsatisfied, it could vote to reject the contract altogether and open the project to competitive bidding.

"I wonder about the scrutiny of certain commissioners who ask tough questions, don't get answers, and then vote for the lease anyway," says former Miami mayor Xavier Suarez, a candidate for county mayor who opposed the lease. "I don't understand that. It doesn't make any sense to me."

Several commissioners -- Kaplan and Souto in particular -- voted for the deal even though a few hours earlier they argued that to do so would be a dereliction of their duty to the citizens of Dade County. Both had tried unsuccessfully to have the matter deferred until all financial questions were resolved and they could look at the lease as a complete package. But when their motions to defer failed, they relented and cast their votes in favor of the project.

"We were all fighting to stay awake," Souto explained a week after the vote. "I've always been opposed to these long meetings. We don't operate well that late. Our brains don't work too well. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that after a certain number of hours, you can't think straight."

Despite that, Souto stood by his vote. "I was reassured by the manager that he had taken all of the safeguards possible in the lease to protect the county," he said. "I was assured that this was a safe contract for us. I think it is still up in the air about whether these developers are going to be able to get the job done."

"I've always been in favor of the project," Kaplan affirmed recently in explaining his vote. "I think it is a wonderful project. The question is whether or not these are the right partners for the county. If it turns out they are not, I'm comfortable we have enough ways out of this lease."

Kaplan's and Souto's comments point out a paradoxical aspect of the HABDI deal. Although Carlos Herrera may have won the commission's vote, he does not have its confidence. Throughout the thirteen-hour meeting, not one commissioner vouched for or made an impassioned plea in support of Herrera or any of his partners. Instead, both during and after the meeting, commissioners were more concerned about how well taxpayers would be protected should Herrera and the others bungle this project or go bust.

It is unlikely that any other commissioner has studied the 175-page agreement more closely than Maurice Ferre. And perhaps more coherently than any other commissioner, Ferre can explain why it might be possible to have doubts about Herrera and his partners and yet still vote for the lease.

"I don't think Carlos Herrera is himself financially or historically capable of developing the Homestead Air Force Base," Ferre says flatly. "I do, however, think Carlos Herrera is very capable of making money. And the way to make money is to sell off part or all of this project. The day after the contract is signed, that guy will have a dozen people knocking on his door."

In fact, Ferre is counting on Herrera to "flip" the lease to a more prominent developer with aviation experience. But if that is the case, if there are more qualified firms waiting to jump into this project, then why not reject the lease with HABDI and open the deal to competitive bidding and bring in an experienced developer at the outset?

Because, Ferre says, Dade County government has such a horrible reputation that many major national and international firms refuse to do business directly with it. The proliferation of lobbyists, the very real perception that political connections mean more than qualifications, all discourage interest, he argues. "Everything around here is a major battle. Carlos Herrera, in my opinion, will be able to do in an intelligent way what this commission can't do."

Herrera denies having any plans to sell the lease for his 70-year, multimillion-dollar enterprise. It's his project, he says, and he promises it will be his legacy to Dade County.

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