The Airport's Flush Fund

Thirteen years ago, when it was revealed that the Pentagon had spent $640 on a toilet seat and $435 for a hammer, the public was outraged. Congress immediately launched an investigation, hearings were held on Capitol Hill, and red-faced military leaders stood by helplessly as their careers came to an ignominious end. At the time, there was a joke making the rounds through Washington's cocktail party circuit: What do you call someone who spends $640 on a toilet seat? Answer: General.

Here in Dade County, that joke is being updated. What do you call someone who spends $8219 on a toilet seat?

Answer: Commissioner.
The Dade County Commission is currently spending more than $5.1 million to equip the restrooms at Miami International Airport with a new type of toilet seat. Each of the airport's 625 commodes will soon feature a high-tech, state-of-the-art, electrically powered gizmo, which at the push of a button will automatically slip a clear plastic sleeve around the seat. Designed by a team of Swiss engineers, these quixotic crappers are called Hygolets and are designed to guard the user against germs and bacteria. The company awarded the contract to provide these mechanical thrones is Bella Bagno, based in Skokie, Illinois.

When the pact expires in August 1999, the company has the right to yank every one of the toilet seats out of the airport if the county doesn't renew its agreement. Bella Bagno was awarded this sweetheart deal without going through any sort of competitive bidding process.

Guiding Bella Bagno through the county bureaucracy like a plumber's snake through a clogged john was their local lobbyist Sergio Pereira, the former county manager. "They came to me maybe a year and a half ago," says Pereira. "I introduced them to [aviation director] Gary Dellapa over at the airport. They made a presentation to Gary, and Gary took it from there. I also took them to see [County Commissioner] Natacha Millan, because she is always interested in learning about women-owned businesses."

Bella Bagno is owned by Cynthia Lazarus, who along with her husband Erwin has been the subject of several stories in the Chicago Tribune. Under scrutiny were their close ties to Windy City politicians and allegations that their political clout helped them land a no-bid contract in 1993 to provide Hygolets for O'Hare International Airport. Neither Cynthia nor Erwin Lazarus was available for comment last week. An assistant to the couple said they were traveling and could not be reached.

Though the Lazaruses' business experience in South Florida is relatively modest, with Pereira's help it has certainly been fruitful. "We had a very brief meeting with Millan," Pereira says, "maybe fifteen minutes." Millan, who is now chairwoman of the committee that oversees the airport, was the only commissioner Lazarus visited, according to Pereira (who refused to disclose his lobbying fee).

After being awarded the contract in November 1995, Bella Bagno began installing the toilet seats at Miami International Airport last August, but to date only 350 of them are ready to accept visitors. The rest will be installed in the coming months, according to John Hamill, manager of the aviation department's facilities maintenance division.

Under Bella Bagno's agreement with Dade County, the $5.1 million will be used to cover the following expenses:

*$257,000 for the actual toilet seats, even though in its original proposal to the county Bella Bagno claimed that it would provide the seats "at no charge"

*$47,000 to install the seats
*$40,000 for the electrical transformers to help power the motors that slide the plastic sleeves around the seats

*$575,000 to provide a warranty on the seats so that if they break they can be replaced

*$695,000 to cover administrative expenses
*$2,040,000 for a three-year supply of plastic sleeves
*$1,483,000 for a maintenance crew that will reload fresh rolls of plastic

The subcontractor providing this last service for Bella Bagno is South Florida Maintenance Services, Inc., owned by Jose Infante, Jr., a contributor to Millan's most recent political campaign and a long-time friend of Pereira. "I introduced Bella Bagno to Jose," Pereira confirms. "I happened to know that they needed a maintenance company as part of this contract, so I brought the two of them together." In addition to his lobbying fee from Bella Bagno, Pereira acknowledges he also received a commission from Infante for bringing him into the deal, but he won't say how much. "I got something from Jose," he says.

While Lazarus, Infante, and Pereira all appear to be sitting pretty from this deal, the real question, which nobody seems to have bothered asking, is whether Miami International Airport truly needed an $8219 toilet seat.

When the idea of contracting with Bella Bagno was first raised there were detractors. For instance, on January 31, 1995, Dan Rishavy, an official with CBM Industries -- the company that provides general janitorial services at the airport -- complained in a memo to airport officials that the idea made little economic sense. Rishavy noted that one of the often-cited advantages of Hygolet is that it will save money on toilet paper, since people will no longer try to fashion seat covers from rolls of tissue. Rishavy, however, dismissed this supposed benefit and noted: "The annual cost of toilet paper at Miami International Airport is approximately $117,000; thus any portion of this amount saved due to Hygolet installation is not significant."

He was also skeptical about the claim that it will save on the amount of time maintenance crews will spend unclogging toilets that are stopped up with the excess toilet paper. "We cannot yet determine a labor cost savings due to Hygolet installation," he wrote, "however, we would estimate any labor savings to be insignificant compared to Hygolet's cost."

Money was apparently not an overriding concern for county officials: They merely passed the cost of this project on to the airlines by raising the fees they pay for operating at Miami International Airport. The airlines in turn pass the cost on to consumers by raising ticket prices.

Hamill says the county's chief concern was to provide a clean and sanitary bathroom. He believes the Hygolets have been a huge success. "I get very favorable comments about the units themselves," Hamill says. People who use the bathrooms "like the idea that it is a more sanitized environment. They feel more comfortable."

Six months before the Dade County Commission approved this deal, officials in Louisiana decided to install about 30 Hygolet seats at the New Orleans International Airport. The Big Easy wasn't charged for the seats, their installation, or their warranty -- compared to the $879,000 in fees Miami International Airport paid. In New Orleans the airport's own crew of janitors changes the plastic rolls in the seats, obviating the need for a separate and expensive maintenance crew like the one in Miami.

And New Orleans is spending only $4.98 a roll for the plastic liners, while Dade County was initially quoted a price of more than $8.00 each. County officials, however, say they believe the actual price per roll will significantly drop, though they are unable to provide any evidence to support that claim.

Besides the obvious differences between the two deals, there is one other important distinction. Instead of Bella Bagno, the New Orleans airport contracted with a different firm, Brill Hygienic, based in Delray Beach. "If I could have bid in Miami I could have saved the airport a lot of money, between 40 and 50 percent of what they are paying," says Alan Brill, the company's president. "I wouldn't have charged for the seats or the installation or any of those other things. The only thing I would have charged the county for was the plastic." And Brill claims the price for each roll of plastic would have been between $4.50 and $4.90 a roll.

Brill also says it's ridiculous to have a subcontractor earning $1.5 million over the next three years doing nothing more than reloading the plastic seat covers. "It's a waste of money," he says. "Why can't the same person who goes in there to clean the bathroom, wash the floors, and replace the toilet paper also replace the plastic rolls?"

Before Dade County awarded the contract to Bella Bagno, officials from the aviation department did contact Brill and invited him to submit a proposal. At the time, he declined. In an interview last week with New Times, Brill says the reason that he didn't compete for the Miami contract is that he was threatened and intimidated by Andre Stucki, the president of the company that distributes Hygolets in the United States.

Brill claims that in a May 1994 meeting with Stucki, he was told about the company's decision to target Miami International Airport (MIA) as the next major site for Hygolet toilets. And he claims that Stucki did not want more than one firm competing for the contract. "My arm was twisted," Brill says. "If I didn't give up the rights to MIA, they would sell me bad plastic."

In addition to providing the actual toilet seats to both Bella Bagno and Brill Hygienic, Stucki's company also supplied them with the specially designed sleeves. Besides the New Orleans airport, Brill has a number of other clients, including restaurants, and was dependent on Stucki to sell him the sleeves. Stucki's alleged threat concerning "bad plastic," Brill says, refers to deliberately sabotaged rolls of plastic. A few drops of liquid cement into a roll, he explains, will cause the sleeves to jam and burn out the motor in the toilet seat.

Brill claims he had to take Stucki's threat seriously because, he says, Stucki had sold him defective plastic in the past. Court records from Palm Beach County show that Brill sued Stucki in 1990, alleging that Stucki had tried to wreck his business by withholding delivery of plastic liners and then tampering with the rolls he was sold.

In February 1992, Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Edward Rogers found that Stucki's firm had "wilfully and intentionally created the defects in some of the rolls of seat liners that were sent to" Brill. It was the second time in three months that Stucki and his firm were found in contempt of court. Stucki was not present in court; records show that Judge Rogers sentenced the company's comptroller, Lynn Rasmussen, to five days in jail in his boss's absence. Stucki did not recall phone calls last week seeking his comment for this story.

Brill, however, says that in May 1994 he could not financially risk another battle with Stucki over Miami International Airport, so he signed an agreement relinquishing any right to compete for that contract. He is speaking now, he says, because he is no longer dependent on Stucki's firm for plastic liners; he recently reached an agreement with another company that provides them.

Brill claims that he tried on several occasions to privately tell Dade County officials the reason he was unable to compete for the contract. But each time, he says, he was ignored. He claims he left messages for both Hamill and Gary Dellapa, the aviation director, but neither returned his calls. Dellapa was out of town last week and could not be reached for comment. "I don't know anything about [the alleged threats], and as I've said, I don't recall ever speaking to Mr. Brill," Hamill says. "I don't recall ever getting any messages from Mr. Brill." He quickly adds that when Bella Bagno's contract ends in 1999, the county would certainly entertain other offers. "If there are other people who can compete, we are always interested," Hamill says.

Once Brill was eliminated as a possible competitor in 1994, Bella Bagno emerged as the only company in the United States that could provide the equipment and services. County officials were thus able to waive their normal bidding requirements and hand the contract to the well-connected Skokie firm.

The county commission approved the decision on November 7, 1995, with little fanfare. Indeed, it is likely that most commissioners did not even know what they were voting on, since the item on the agenda read: "Resolution authorizing waiver of formal bid procedures and the provision of administrative order 3-2, for the purchase of items and services."

There was no mention that the total contract was for $5.1 million or that, when itemized per toilet, it came out to $8219 a head. No word yet on whether the county plans to seek bids on a new and even more expensive hammer.

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