By Michael E. Miller
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Despite the widely held perception of a direct link between fundraising and favorable treatment, Korge denies it, and insists there is nothing untoward in his raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for commissioners and the mayor while also pleading with them to help his clients. "The general public, I think, feels that lobbyists do not conduct business in an ethical way," he says. "I think our community is very, very immature in terms of how it views lobbyists. In Washington lobbyist is definitely not a bad word. In fact, some of the most respected people in Washington are lobbyists.
"Yes, I have some degree of influence on the process," he concedes, "but I would like to believe that my influence is based on my ability to articulate the merits of an issue." The only benefit he receives from raising money for a commissioner, he claims, is "a keener ear from elected officials" when he makes his presentation. "They are going to let me make my point and not stop me from making my case."
One former county administrator, John Van Wezel, who oversaw the concessions program at Miami International Airport says Korge's influence wasn't based solely on the merits of the arguments he made but on his political connections as well. Van Wezel dealt regularly with Korge and his airport clients until he retired from county service last year. "He was a very tough negotiator," Van Wezel recalls, "because you always knew he had the influence downtown to pretty much get whatever he wanted from the county commission and from the mayor." Van Wezel says he routinely felt that he was at a disadvantage in dealing with Korge, and he would relent on issues as a result -- even though it might not have been in the county's best interest -- because he believed Korge "would eventually get what he wanted anyway."
Van Wezel's observations are echoed by Judith Byrd, a principal partner in the Chicago-based Unison Consulting Group. Byrd says that when she came to Miami in 1994 to help develop a retail master plan for the airport, Korge's name came up in nearly every meeting with county administrators. "He was looming large over our project throughout," she recalls. "I've done consulting work for airports all over the country -- Chicago, JFK, Newark, LAX, Denver, Philadelphia, St. Louis -- and I have never worked at an airport in which a lobbyist played such a major role in how the staff operated."
Byrd's blueprint for MIA's retail development was scrapped immediately after Penelas was elected. She believes that happened because her recommendations were not what Korge wanted for clients such as Sirgany-Century, Sirgany International, and Host-Marriott. "I'm totally convinced of that," she says, asserting further that the county government's poor reputation nationwide is a direct result of the role played by lobbyists like Korge. "There are many, many companies who would like to do business in Dade County and at the airport," she says, "but they refuse to go where they think they have to hire a lobbyist just to be heard."
These days, hearing from Chris Korge can be a most unwelcome experience for many a Miami businessman. Increasingly it means he's calling for money. In addition to stocking the campaign coffers of county commissioners and gathering more than a million dollars for the president and vice president, Korge is now raising funds for various congressional candidates outside Florida. For instance, he recently hosted a Miami fundraiser for Rep. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat who is running for the Senate. As the 2000 election approaches, he will be expected to raise even more money. And should Miami be selected to host the Democrats' national convention, Korge will be expected to sweet-talk a host of corporations into coughing up the millions needed to underwrite such an extravaganza.
Korge is quick to note that he has raised many thousands of dollars for a variety of charitable causes, but it is his political arm-twisting that is growing tiresome to many. "Everybody I know is walking around griping and grousing about how they get put upon by Chris to donate money to various candidates," says one local lobbyist who asked not to be identified. "And yet we all keep writing these larger and larger checks. And we are doing it not because Chris Korge is asking but because the mayor is involved."
In the same way Korge uses his relationship with Penelas to recruit clients, so does he use it to raise funds for politicians far and wide. Another businessman Korge has tapped for money, who also asked not to be identified, complains there is no subtlety in his approach. "He's pretty heavy-handed," says this donor, who at Korge's urging has written thousands of dollars in checks for local and national candidates. "You do it because you are afraid that if you don't you might alienate Alex Penelas. When Chris talks to you, he tells you that he is calling because 'the mayor wants you to write a check for this,' or 'the mayor wants you to write a check for that.' I have no idea if that's really what the mayor wants. But you don't question it. The implication is that if you don't write the check, the mayor will be upset."