Smeared for Takeoff

American Airlines officials want to know why the Miami Herald is covering old news as if it were a breaking story

The story also noted that it was American's Ted Tedesco who was the commission's harshest critic. Based at the time at the company's headquarters in Dallas (he has since transferred to California), Tedesco told New Times that American executives had been confounded for more than a year by the seemingly endless stream of upgrade requests from commissioners and other county bureaucrats. Six months before the commission held a vote on the new terminal, New Times quoted Tedesco as saying, "What in the hell are people doing down there? It seemed like every day we were hearing about something new. More commissioners. More staff people. Every time someone flew, they expected to be upgraded. And when it spread to their staffs, that was too much. We felt we had to do something."

American's answer was to issue memos to its top executives in Miami, instructing them to cease granting upgrades willy-nilly. To wean commissioners of the habit of trying to arrange upgrades through all sorts of back- door channels, Tedesco explained to New Times, the airline had already begun issuing the officials VIP cards and special stickers that would allow them to buy upgrades at reduced prices.

The Herald article correctly pointed out that the Gold and Platinum card programs amount to perks; the programs are normally reserved for people who fly at least 25,000 miles annually, and most commissioners would not have qualified. Still, in implying impropriety on the part of American Airlines, the writers provided little of the background that had led American to issue the cards and had spurred the original New Times story.

Writers Freedberg and Branch also were unable to confirm whether every commissioner received the cards, issued through the county's travel agent. As a result, commissioners such as Dennis Moss and Betty Ferguson, both of whom are known not to have abused their positions to receive upgrades, were singled out. "I take particular offense at the implications of the article and the editorial," Moss says. "It implies I went out and sought this card, when I didn't. It implies I used this card, when I didn't. I've never used that card. I've never asked for an upgrade. I've never gotten an upgrade. I fly coach."

The Herald writers were similarly selective in identifying which provisions of the county's ethics code the upgrade-grabbing commissioners may have violated. As last year's New Times story explained, the officials may have run afoul of three separate provisions: "Disclosure," "Exploitation of Official Position Prohibited," and "Gifts."

The Herald article did make clear -- as had New Times the year before -- that some commissioners seemingly violated the "Disclosure" regulations, which require that commissioners and high-ranking county employees annually report to the Florida Secretary of State any gifts valued in excess of $25. But although the Herald writers noted that the code defines gift as the "transfer of anything of economic value whether in the form of money, service, loan, travel, entertainment, [or] hospitality" without adequate payment for that item or service, they failed to reveal that the "Gifts" section also states that county employees, including commissioners, "shall neither solicit nor demand any gift."

Nor did the Herald story mention the section on "Exploitation," which states, "No person . . . shall use or attempt to use his official position to secure special privileges or exemptions for himself or others. . . . " Under that provision, too, American might have been viewed as the victim, not the perpetrator of any impropriety, airline spokesmen argue. Which is why, they feel, the section was not explained in the article; viewing the airline as a possible victim wouldn't fit into the Herald's goal of portraying American as a corporate villain.

Ted Tedesco traces the source of the negative coverage back to American's competitors -- via lobbyist Michael Benages. "My judgment is that it is almost 100 percent coming from United Airlines and their lobbyist, Mike Benages," says Tedesco. "[Freedberg] takes his stuff as fact and asks us to disprove it."

In the past couple of weeks, Benages has come under increasing fire. During the same February 6 commission meeting at which commissioners discussed the Herald's request for information about travel benefits, Commission Chairman Art Teele publicly labeled Benages the culprit behind a smear campaign being waged against the commission and American Airlines.

Katy Sorenson says, too, that in meetings with her, Benages has boasted about his connections with the Herald. "He was going around bragging that his friend Sydney was writing this expose on commissioners and American Airlines," Sorenson says. "He did it in a meeting with me."

Agrees Tedesco: "He's a loose cannon. I'd venture to say I don't think United Airlines knows about everything he's been doing. What we are concerned about, though, is how easy it was for a competitor of ours to hire a hit man like Benages, and for that person to find an outlet so easily to get their information into what is supposed to be one of this country's major daily newspapers. That is what is extraordinary to me."

Freedberg rejects the notion that the Herald's interest in American Airlines is being driven by its rivals or by Benages. "I'm sorry if American feels I've been unfair to them," she says. "I've tried to be very fair to them. I just want to get to the bottom of things." Noting that the county's planned expansion for American is "the biggest deal in Dade history," she adds, "I feel as a newspaper we have an obligation to audit that transaction."

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