Friends (and Money) in High Places

By all accounts the fundraiser held a few weeks ago at the Biltmore Hotel for President Bill Clinton was a huge success, as the $1500-a-plate affair raised $3.4 million for the president's campaign coffers. It also raised the profile of disgraced former county commissioner Larry Hawkins, who was dumped by voters in 1994 following allegations that he had sexually harassed female members of his staff, charges that were later upheld by the state ethics commission. Earlier this year, Hawkins lost his job as president of the Easter Seal Society of Dade County when similar accusations were leveled against him there. Adding insult to lechery, Hawkins negotiated a quiet departure from his charitable post by securing a $400,000 pension and severance package for a job he held for only four years.

Despite his ignominy, Hawkins was a co-chair of this year's presidential gala, a reminder that next to harassing women, Hawkins's greatest talent remains his ability to raise money. Having once again excelled at that task, his reward was a seat alongside the president during the fete.

Sitting only a few feet away from the president's table was another controversial figure on Dade's political landscape, Carlos Herrera, president of the influential Latin Builders Association (LBA). Herrera is also president of Homestead Air Base Developers, Inc., better known by the acronym HABDI, and best known for being granted by the county commission, without competitive bidding, the right to develop nearly 2000 acres of the former air force base in South Dade.

While the sight of Herrera, a registered Republican, toasting a Democratic president might have been jarring for some of those in attendance, there was logic behind it. This was only the most recent move in Herrera's methodical plan to see that nothing interferes with his efforts to maintain control of a project that some have estimated may be worth more than $500 million over the next twenty years. Indeed this was not even the first time Herrera and Clinton have met, nor was it the first time Herrera had donated money to Democratic Party causes.

Over the past year, the LBA boss has emerged as a major campaign contributor to the Democratic National Committee (DNC). By Herrera's own estimate he has donated "more than $100,000" to the party, the president, and various key senators, most notably Massachusetts Democrat Ted Kennedy. His resulting access within the Clinton administration has become formidable, and belies a common perception that Herrera's strength derives solely from the influence and financial leverage the LBA wields over local politicians and government bureaucrats, that he is powerless outside of South Florida, and his rapid rise has been some sort of a "Cuban thing" unique to Dade County.

In fact Herrera is no parochial aberration, and his tactics are as American as the presidents on whom he bestows his money.

Five months have passed since the county commission's highly controversial decision to lease the lion's share of Homestead Air Force Base to Herrera and fellow developers Pedro Adrian and Camilo Jaime. And yet the actual lease between Dade County and HABDI has not yet been signed and is still only in draft form. The two sides continue to argue over the precise language of various provisions, with HABDI pressuring county attorneys for the most favorable wording possible. If any of the changes suggested by HABDI alter the agreement substantially, then the entire lease will have to return to the commission for approval, a prospect HABDI strongly wants to avoid.

The county manager and the county attorney are responsible for determining what changes should be considered "substantial," and they are not expected to send the final version back to the commission. The lease could be signed within the next few weeks, after which the county will forward a copy to the federal government along with its formal application to have the land on the air base transferred from the Department of Defense to Dade County. Once the land is "conveyed" to the county, the county will then turn it over to HABDI.

Since Herrera ultimately wants to develop Homestead into a commercial airport, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will also have to review the lease agreement between Dade County and HABDI before the defense department can transfer the land. In addition, the federal government -- with the help of the Environmental Protection Agency -- must decide how much of the cost of environmental cleanup will be paid by the federal government and how much will be shouldered by the county and HABDI.

With the next phase of HABDI's development now dependent on so many federal agencies, Herrera's keen interest in national politics is more easily understood. "I'm a respectful guy," he explains. "I always go to the highest person possible to explain what I am doing."

Herrera went right to the top two years ago when he attended a private breakfast with Clinton at the White House. "I've seen him a couple of times since then," Herrera notes. "And I've seen the vice president a couple of times. The president was nice enough to listen to what I had to say and to open up some doors for me."

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