Turbulence Over HABDI

During HABDI's regular monthly board of directors meeting in March, Augustine Ajagbe announced his desire to add to the seven-member panel Dick Judy, the controversial former aviation director for Dade County. Although it looked like Ajagbe's proposal, several other board members suspected it was really the handiwork of HABDI's president, Carlos Herrera, Jr., who they feared was trying to load the board with individuals loyal solely to him.

For the past nine months, HABDI, which stands for Homestead Air Base Developers, Inc., has been undergoing a very quiet yet tumultuous internal power struggle that is likely to result in three of the four founding members being pressured to sell their stock in the company and resign from the board. One of the original partners, Virgilio Perez, is already gone, and the future involvement of Camilo Jaime and Clayton Rudd remains very much in doubt. Insiders say only Herrera seems secure.

This power struggle has turned friends into bitter rivals, as was evidenced during the March board meeting held in the offices of HABDI's attorney, Ramon Rasco. According to sources present at the meeting, once Ajagbe made his idea known, Jaime immediately accused Herrera of being behind the plan and argued that Judy would be nothing more than Herrera's puppet. As Jaime continued his verbal barrage, Herrera, sitting at the head of the long conference table, grew incensed and screamed at Jaime, "How dare you accuse me of trying to fuck you!"

Since HABDI was awarded the exclusive right by the county commission to privately develop more than 1300 acres of the air reserve base in South Dade, the project has dominated every aspect of Herrera's life. His other businesses have faltered, and the ensuing pressure is one reason that he and his wife briefly separated earlier this year, friends and business associates say. "Carlos has always been a difficult guy," says a person who has worked closely with him, "but I think this particular project has overwhelmed him. It has taken over his mind and his body." Herrera has staked so much on HABDI that he knows its future will forever define him in this community. Which could be why during last month's board meeting he was not going to allow anyone to challenge his authority -- not his partners and certainly not the man whom he once considered one of his closest friends.

Jumping to his feet, Herrera threw off his glasses and charged toward Jaime. Herrera, according to the witnesses, then hurled a wild punch intended for Jaime, but mistakenly struck attorney Rasco on the side of his head. Quickly, several of the other board members grabbed Herrera to restrain him.

Jaime recoiled in shock. "For two years we were like brothers," Jaime shouted, his voice, shaking according to those present, "and now you are attacking me."

Herrera, his own face flush with anger, remained livid. "Nobody is going to take this away from me!" he screamed in Spanish. "Nobody is going to take this away from me!"

Herrera did not return phone calls last week seeking his comment. Rasco, citing attorney-client privilege and the confidentiality of board meetings, also refused to speak about the incident. Camilo Jaime acknowledged the altercation took place but was reluctant to discuss the details. "I basically told him that I felt the balance of the board of directors was being manipulated by him into his own favor," Jaime recalls. "And Carlos took it personally." He says Herrera apologized to him several days later. "Right now we are still on speaking terms with each other," Jaime adds, "but basically we are not close any more."

The larger issue, of course, is whether the months of infighting have diminished HABDI's ability to develop the base. "I don't believe it has hurt HABDI because this struggle has been kept confidential, until now," Jaime says. "But it has wasted some of our time, time we could have spent looking for tenants and taking care of real business."

Board member Clayton Rudd agrees. "I think there is a lack of communication between the board members," he says. "There is a lack of intrinsic friendship that I think was once there between shareholders. And I think it gets down to just nobody getting together and saying, 'Here is what we need to do; we need to move this thing forward.'"

No project is more important to the long-term economic vitality of South Dade than the redevelopment of Homestead Air Reserve Base. Following Hurricane Andrew, which leveled most of the facility, the federal government decided to maintain only a small portion of the complex for military use and offered the rest of the site to Dade County. Last year the county commission gave final approval to a 70-year lease to HABDI, which plans to develop the base into a general-purpose airport. Envisioned are hotels, office complexes, and retail shopping centers. Initially the airport would emphasize cargo traffic, but it would eventually include passenger flights as Miami International Airport becomes overburdened.

The county's decision to grant HABDI the lease remains highly controversial, as it was done without competitive bidding and without the commission even reviewing alternative proposals. Critics charge that the commissioners handed the deal to HABDI because its president, Herrera, was also president of the powerful Latin Builders Association (LBA), a group that has donated tens of thousands of dollars to the political campaigns of commissioners over the years.

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