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

Politically Korge, Barreto, and Pino have become a machine. Korge is the fighter, Barreto the schmoozer, Pino the money man. In a matter of minutes, Pino can pump $20,000 into any candidate's war chest by funneling dozens of $500 checks through his many corporations. He thereby skirts the intent (though not the letter) of the state's campaign finance laws, which seek to limit an individual's donations to $500 per candidate.

The men have become so closely identified with one another politically that in 1996 Miami Mayor Joe Carollo derisively dubbed them "the three amigos." In addition, their business dealings have become inseparably intertwined. For instance, Korge helped Pino's company win the much-sought-after contract to run the newsstands at Miami International Airport. Pino acknowledges he has private business relationships with both Korge and Barreto. On "three or four occasions," he says, he has included the two in real estate deals he has worked on. He also says that Korge is "one of the largest investors" in Century Partners Group, a Pino company that specializes in real estate and which is projected to generate revenue approaching $250 million by the end of 1999.

In the years since Korge first arrived at county hall, the lobbying profession has run amuck. If the elections of 1988 and 1990 brought in a trickle of aspiring power brokers like Korge and Barreto, the election of 1993 opened the floodgates. That was the year a federal judge ordered that commissioners be elected by district. And the number of commissioners was increased from nine to thirteen.

By the time all the votes were counted from the March 1993 special elections, the county had nine new commissioners, each towing along a pack of eager influence peddlers. Overnight the halls of county government were filled with people calling themselves lobbyists. The bureaucracy has never been the same.

Lobbying, of course, is not intrinsically evil. In its purest form, it consists of nothing more than an individual conveying the substance and merits of a client's position. Contrary views are conveyed by opposing lobbyists. Legislators and their staffs should benefit from this exchange and -- theoretically at least -- be able to make more informed decisions.

Today, however, lobbyists are no longer primarily information providers; they are also important fundraisers. In Miami the relationship between county commissioner and lobbyist has evolved symbiotically: A lobbyist raises needed money for a commissioner, who in turn grants that lobbyist special access. The lobbyist can use that access to sign up new clients, whom he solicits for yet more campaign contributions, which helps raise that lobbyist's stature and affords him even greater access to one or more commissioners. That allows him to then sign up even more clients, whom he solicits for yet more donations on behalf of even more commissioners, which begets more access -- and on and on.

These days it is no secret who needs to be hired in order to crack the door to a particular commissioner's office:

If you want to talk to Natacha Millan, you hire Sergio Pereira.
If you need to bend Gwen Margolis's ear, you hire Eric "Ric" Sisser.
If you want a meeting with Miriam Alonso, you hire Armando Gutierrez.
If you have a message to pass to Barbara Carey, you hire Phil Hamersmith.

Down the line it goes. If you wish to cover most of them in one pass -- and toss in the mayor for good measure -- you hire Korge and Barreto. On some major contracts, companies have hired eight or more lobbyists, each with a specific assignment to contact an individual commissioner. This phenomenon is not limited to elected officials. Lobbyist Jorge Lopez, for example, attracted dozens of clients based on his close relationship to former County Manager Armando Vidal.

In order for lobbyists to keep their clients happy -- and for commissioners to keep the checks rolling in -- those clients at some point have to actually win contracts. To that end, a lobbyist attempts to influence the selection process. He can try to persuade county staff or the commission to establish requirements for prospective bidders that favor his client and perhaps even exclude competitors. He can attempt to influence the county manager's appointments to a selection committee that might review proposals and make recommendations. And finally, he can privately pressure individual commissioners to select his client, even if that client is not the most qualified.

Earlier this month Florida International University released a survey of more than 400 top Miami-Dade County administrators, who indicated that lobbyists influence nearly all their significant decisions. More than half the participating bureaucrats declared that political interference by lobbyists was a major problem. Before the release of the report, several measures had been brought before the county commission designed to curb the influence of lobbyists, including limiting their contacts with the county's professional staff. Among those proposing changes is Alex Penelas.

Given his close association with Korge and Barreto, Penelas's new role as reformer is viewed cynically by some county hall observers. During the $200,000 Miriam Alonso fundraiser earlier this year, for example, Penelas went out of his way to publicly thank Korge and Barreto for their efforts in raising money for Alonso. The gathering at the home of Sergio Pino was packed with other lobbyists and their clients, who had also anted up substantial contributions for Alonso. A few later groused that Penelas's special thanks to Korge and Barreto was nothing less than a signal to all that those two are his main men. Korge dismisses the complaint, saying Penelas "recognized the fact that we were there giving an extra effort to help [Alonso] in her fundraising -- and we did."

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