The Dumping Ground

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

Gloria Bolinger is another alumna of the county manager's office. Last April, under the guise of streamlining his office staff and payroll, Vidal decided to transfer her to the airport. She maintains the same title, the ubiquitous special projects administrator, she held when she worked for the manager, and was given a slight raise. She now earns $74,000.

Pallais and Bolinger are examples of the problems that put aviation officials in the quandary they say they are in. Top administrators such as Dellapa and his deputy director Amaury Zuriarrain argue the county has to be flexible and can't throw long-standing employees out of work just because their former boss may no longer want them. "The truth is, it's easier for the airport to create positions for these people," explains Zuriarrain, who has been with the aviation department 23 years. "We have the ability to do that." Those types of positions are created, he posits, out of a sense of loyalty for the person and not from some shady political motivation. "It has always been understood that the county is one big family," he says.

(Speaking of family, Zuriarrain's nephew Evelio works at the airport. Zuriarrain admits that nine years ago he went to then-aviation director Dick Judy to get his nephew a job. "I went to see the aviation director and asked if he could work here part-time," says Zuriarrain, who was then working in the marketing department. "Since then I have never inquired about my nephew or in any way influenced what he does at the airport." Currently, Evelio works at the airport as a terminal operations specialist earning $28,000 a year.)

The airport has also become a sanctuary for county employees who were facing criticism in their previous jobs. "The airport has provided a place for people at the county to get a second chance with their careers," says Dellapa. In the early Nineties, Lonnie Lawrence was the director of Dade's corrections department, responsible for managing the county's network of jails. But under allegations that his department was being poorly managed, and with the corrections officers and the unions threatening a revolt, Lawrence was removed three years ago and placed in charge of airport security. The fact that Lawrence had no experience in the security operation of a major airport must have been irrelevant. His current salary is $110,000.

Ted Davis, the brother-in-law of former commissioner Larry Hawkins, had previously been the head of the county's risk management department. Following press reports questioning the operation of his department, he was moved back to the airport as a safety and security chief under Lawrence. Davis blames his removal as head of risk management on his boss, Victor Monzon-Aguirre, the former head of the General Services Administration. "He never wanted me in that job; he never thought I was qualified for it," Davis says, not realizing that he is adding credence to those who believe he received his promotion to risk management because of influence exerted by Hawkins. When confronted on this point, Davis tersely replies: "I have no idea what machinations went on behind the scenes when I was promoted." Back at the airport, Davis now earns $72,000.

Even Dellapa used to work downtown at county hall before being transferred to the airport. A former assistant county manager, Dellapa was demoted by former county manager Joaquin Avino in 1993. Dellapa now has an annual salary of $154,000, as well as another $18,000 paid in so-called executive benefits, which can be used for car insurance, additional life insurance, even homeowners insurance.

Greg Owens is another county employee who has recently found refuge at the airport. From 1991 to late 1995, Owens was the director of the county's Department of Business and Economic Development (DBED), which oversaw a large set-aside program for minority and women contractors. The department also provided loans, bond guarantees, and grants for minority- and women-owned businesses. But Owens was a controversial figure. During his tenure at DBED he once barred a black-owned company from receiving set-aside contracts because it appeared the company was being secretly controlled by another firm owned by Jorge Mas Canosa, chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation. A county review committee eventually overturned his decision, but Owens's allegations caused a great deal of embarrassment for Mas Canosa.

Vidal, who sought Mas Canosa's support when he applied to become county manager, subsequently decided to do away with Owens's department and transferred its responsibilities to other agencies. Vidal denied his decision had anything to do with Owens's earlier attack on Mas Canosa. But even if Vidal wanted to get rid of Owens, he couldn't -- Owens had an important ally on the commission, Chairman Arthur Teele. So what to do with Owens?

The answer was obvious -- send him to work at the airport. Owens became the director of North Terminal Development, a position that, Dellapa acknowledges, was created especially for him. Owens says he is responsible for coordinating the construction of the proposed billion-dollar terminal for American Airlines.

Owens's appointment left some aviation employees mystified. "What are his qualifications for that job?" asked one DCAD official. "Is he an architect? Is he an engineer? Does he have experience as an airport planner? No. His only qualification is that they needed to move him somewhere, so they put him out here. And what the hell has he been doing for the last year and a half? Nothing."

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