The Dumping Ground

When family members or cronies need a job, Dade county politicians drop them off at the airport

"Raul is doing very well," says Lauren Gail, director of public affairs. "Yeah, he might be the child of a political leader, but he is developing and he is growing. He has come up with some very good ideas on how to promote the airport." Gail says she doesn't know how Martinez was selected; she was merely notified by the personnel office last July that he had been hired. She met Martinez for the first time when he arrived for work.

A person doesn't have to be related to a local politician to land a job with the county's aviation department; sometimes just knowing a commissioner helps. Four months ago Gorky Charpentier was given a $29,000-a-year position in the airport's protocol office, which escorts foreign dignitaries, politicians, and celebrities around the airport and helps them get through customs without having to stand in line.

Prior to Charpentier's hiring, Miami International Airport already had six protocol officers as well as a protocol chief, who drew a collective salary of $270,000 a year. The department's budget, approved months earlier, did not call for any new hires. According to airport sources, there was no indication of a need for a seventh protocol official. Until last summer's election in Ecuador, that is. For four years, Charpentier had been Ecuador's consul general in Miami, but when Abdala "El Loco" Bucaram became the country's new president in July, Charpentier lost his fancy title.

What's an unemployed diplomat to do?
"Some of the county commissioners I know -- Bruce Kaplan, Alex Penelas, Pedro Reboredo -- told me to apply here at the airport," says Charpentier. "They said they would help me get a job. They told me I could have a job here."

Any county commissioners who involve themselves in personnel decisions would be in violation of the county charter; if caught, they could be removed from office. No Dade county commissioner has ever been prosecuted by the State Attorney's Office under this provision of the charter, which has been in effect for 40 years.

Protocol chief Monique Denes refuses to discuss why a position was created for Charpentier or if any pressure was applied by commissioners or their staffs. She did acknowledge, however, that protocol officers are usually required to speak English and two foreign languages. Charpentier speaks only English and Spanish.

Reboredo did not return a phone call last week seeking his comment. Speaking on behalf of Penelas, Brian May says the mayor did not apply any pressure to assist Charpentier. "Alex does remember this person," May says, "but as Alex tells everyone who asks him for a job, he told him that he had to go through the county's normal hiring practice." Kaplan also denies having intervened in the matter. "I didn't help him," he says. "I certainly encouraged him to apply. And what a treasure it is having a career diplomat on the airport's staff."

With an annual operating budget of $405 million, the Dade County Aviation Department (DCAD) employs 1600 workers to operate Miami International Airport (MIA), as well as the county's smaller landing fields in Opa-locka, Kendall, and Homestead. DCAD retains a staff of painters, carpenters, electricians, and janitors to physically maintain these facilities. A raft of accountants ensures that rents and fees are collected from the airlines and other businesses that call MIA home. The county also hires architects and engineers to plan future growth, and marketing specialists to drum up business from airlines that don't currently fly into Miami. More than 250 Metro-Dade police and firefighters are on the airport's payroll, as are tour guides, mechanics, attorneys, and secretaries. And there are scores of managers and administrators to oversee the entire enterprise.

Three-quarters of the posts at the airport are so-called classified positions, in which matters of hiring, promotions, transfers, and raises are strictly controlled by civil service rules and regulations, or by the various collective bargaining agreements between the county and the unions representing those particular employees.

Occupations that are not covered by a union or by civil service rules fall into a gray area in which the county manager, and now Dade's new mayor, have a great deal of latitude. Within the aviation department, these nonclassified (or "exempt") positions dominate departments such as marketing, public affairs, and finance. Department directors, division chiefs, and supervisors at the airport are nonclassified, as are certain clerical jobs and all part-time employees. So if Penelas or Vidal wants to create a job for folks like Kevin Miles, Frank Souto, Raul Martinez, Jr., and Gorky Charpentier, there is nothing to stop him.

And nowhere is it easier -- or more tempting -- to abuse that power than at the airport. In most other county departments, such as parks and recreation or corrections, if county executives wanted to invent a new position they would have to juggle that department's existing budget to find the money. But the aviation department's budget is amazingly flexible and can grow almost at will, since the county passes along all the costs of running the airport to the people who use it. To defray these costs, fees are collected from all of the businesses that operate at the airport: Restaurants, newsstands, barber shops, and dozens of other businesses all pay for the right to be there.

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