Don't Call Me a Lobbyist!

Even though my name is Chris Korge and Alex Penelas is my best buddy and all the commissioners are indebted to me and I guarantee you'll get that fat county contract

Although Korge and Barreto had no formal business relationship, they often worked with one another, referring clients and bringing one another into deals whenever possible.

As the Eighties drew to a close, Korge and Barreto had a taste of what they wanted out of life, and they were growing impatient. They both say they wanted more clients, more influence, more money. They wanted to be movers and shakers. To accomplish that, they knew they had to find a way to establish a presence for themselves at county hall, where the real action was taking place. Every other week major corporations -- Fortune 500 companies -- were warring over profitable county contracts, and each of those firms was paying lobbyists big fees to fight their battles.

The problem for Korge and Barreto was that the county commission for years had been divided up among a well-heeled cadre of influence peddlers who weren't interested in admitting newcomers to their lucrative fraternity.

In 1988 nine people sat on the county commission: Clara Oesterle, James Redford, Beverly Phillips, Barry Schreiber, Barbara Carey, Jorge Valdes, Sherman Winn, Harvey Ruvin, and Steve Clark, who held the title of mayor. Clark may have been mayor, but insiders knew it was really lobbyist Steve Ross's commission. Ross, along with business partner Dusty Melton, exerted enormous -- many would argue unseemly -- sway over each of these commissioners. (Ross died in 1995.) The other major players of the day were attorneys such as Robert Traurig, Stanley Price, and Tom Carlos, who maintained long-standing relationships with various commissioners, relationships they used to entice new clients.

The old guard, however, changed dramatically in the fall of 1988, when Oesterle, Redford, and Phillips were defeated by Larry Hawkins, Joe Gersten, and Charles Dusseau, respectively. With these new commissioners came a new crop of lobbyists who had supported them as candidates and who were now looking to take their place at the trough.

Phil Hamersmith and Greg Borgognoni rolled in alongside Hawkins. Charlie Citrin and Seth Joseph landed with Gersten. And Ric Katz rode in on Dusseau's coattails.

Korge and Barreto watched and learned. Soon it was clear they needed their own Trojan-horse candidate to carry them into county hall.

Alex Penelas and Korge met in 1989. At the time Penelas was a 27-year-old councilman in Hialeah. "I met this young guy and I thought to myself, this guy is going to go the distance," Korge recalls. "He was perfect. He was a perfect candidate." Korge says he was not only struck by what he described as Penelas's honesty and integrity but also by the fact that the budding politician was so young. "This was an opportunity for me to get behind someone and play a significant role in their campaign," he recounts.

Korge and Barreto joke today about who first met Penelas. "Chris keeps telling me that he introduced me to Alex," Barreto chuckles. "I don't remember it that way." There is no dispute, however, that they both realized he could make a powerful candidate for the county commission. "He was good-looking, articulate," Barreto recounts. "We knew he could win countywide if he had the right resources."

Translation: money.
In 1990 Penelas ran for county commission against Jorge Valdes. Hamersmith was hired to run Penelas's election campaign while Korge and Barreto helped Penelas raise more than $100,000. Others assisted in raising funds, among them lobbyist Michael Benages and Hialeah Councilman Herman Echevarria, but there was no question that Korge and Barreto were Penelas's point men.

When the young politician beat Valdes and took his seat on the dais, Korge and Barreto knew they too had arrived at county hall. If a company seeking a county contract wanted access to Penelas, then that company hired Korge or Barreto -- and usually both.

As Korge's client list grew, he left Holland & Knight in 1991 to become a name partner in the Miami law firm Zack, Ponce, Tucker, Korge & Gillespie. While hard work certainly helped, the secret to Korge's success was that he backed a politician with staying power. When Hawkins, Gersten, and Dusseau faded from the scene, so did the influence of their friends, except perhaps for Hamersmith, who established links to other commissioners, primarily by running their election campaigns.

Korge too understood the value of diversification and accomplished it by becoming a prodigious fundraiser for other commissioners. And the key to fundraising, of course, is knowing people with money.

Not long after Penelas defeated Valdes, Korge met Valdes's main financial supporter, Sergio Pino, a real estate developer and the owner of Century Plumbing. Valdes had mounted a vicious campaign against Penelas in 1990, which included attacks on Spanish-language radio depicting Penelas as a homosexual. Pino had been vital to Valdes's campaign, but that fact did not discourage Korge from establishing a relationship in accord with one of politics' best-known axioms: Always try to turn your enemies into your friends, especially if they are rich.

After meeting Korge, Pino then met Barreto. "One day Mayor Clark introduced me to Rodney," Pino recalls. "He told Rodney that I was a good guy and he said someday Alex should have a friend like Sergio." Pino, Barreto, and Korge became fast friends and soon Pino became one of Penelas's major campaign contributors.

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