Airport Sleaze Aplenty

Call it trickle-down corruption. After years of watching politicians and senior county officials line their pockets -- a few getting caught, most not -- a group of low-level, rank-and-file county employees apparently decided it was their turn.

New Times has learned that a ring of eight employees at Miami International Airport has allegedly been bilking the county out of thousands of dollars through an organized effort to file bogus overtime slips with the forged signatures of their supervisors. The scheme, first detected by aviation department officials in August, has prompted an ongoing criminal investigation by the Miami-Dade Police Department's public corruption unit and the Dade State Attorney's Office. Arrests are imminent.

According to sources familiar with the investigation, an audit of payroll records reveals that the group embezzled about $20,000 during the past year. Investigators and county auditors are still reviewing time sheets and other records in an attempt to discover exactly when the fraud began, but they believe it was sometime in 1997.

All of these employees worked in the maintenance division of the aviation department, which has recently been rife with tales of mismanagement and wasteful spending. Until last week, the head of the maintenance division was John Hamill, an acerbic, controversial figure who abruptly resigned this past Friday.

At least half of the employees under investigation were considered trusted allies of Hamill, and may have felt emboldened to mount a campaign of petty thievery believing their status as the boss's buddies would protect them if they were caught. It didn't.

Indeed it was their arrogance that eventually betrayed them. Several individuals were so brazen they openly talked about cheating the county. Eventually supervisors in the airport's payroll section heard about it and began scrutinizing the time sheets of several individuals more closely. Sure enough, during the very next pay period, supervisors discovered a bogus request for overtime. A broader review then commenced, and the scope of the fraud was revealed.

Key to the illicit scheme was the fact that two of the eight employees were clerks in the payroll section of the maintenance department and were responsible for ensuring that time sheets for the approximately 600 maintenance employees were properly filled out. Their positions allowed these two clerks to assist their crooked colleagues in submitting false overtime claims.

The employees relied on three tricks. The first was to simply pad the number of overtime hours they worked in a given week. The second had staffers claiming they worked a legal paid holiday such as Christmas or Thanksgiving when in fact they did not. The third involved vacation time, known as annual leave.

Typically when MIA employees seek vacation time, they submit a request detailing their anticipated absence from work. The time is then deducted from the amount of annual leave they are allowed. This small band of maintenance workers, however, figured out a way to dupe the system. After returning from vacation, they would submit a form to personnel officials downtown claiming they had been unable to take their scheduled time off because of unforeseen problems at work. They would then ask personnel to restore the hours of annual leave that had been deducted. The form would contain the forged signature of their supervisor. Employees could then take additional vacation time or "cash out" unused annual leave.

"If they had just kept doing what they had been doing, cheating us for an hour here and an hour there, I don't think they ever would have been caught," says Gary Dellapa, director of the Miami-Dade County Aviation Department. "But it was when they started getting more aggressive that we finally caught on."

In August, after several supervisors in the maintenance division became aware of the problem, they reported it to both John Hamill and the head of personnel for the airport, Cynthia Collins. When Hamill confronted one of the accused payroll clerks, a 27-year-old woman who had been with the county for four years, she promptly resigned.

"I was forced to resign," the woman said last week. "Hamill told me that if I didn't resign, the cops are going to come down here and get me. I got really scared." She claimed she did nothing wrong, though she said she was aware that others may have been cheating the county. "I feel mad, but at the same time I feel like he did me a favor," she added. "This way it doesn't go on my record why I resigned."

Hamill's boss was not very happy the woman was allowed to resign. "She should have been suspended pending an investigation," said Dellapa, "and if she was found to have committed a crime, then she should have been fired and not simply allowed to resign."

Hamill did not respond to a request for an interview.

I first met John Hamill nearly two years ago when I was working on a story about the airport's ridiculous program to install new toilet seats. Each fancy unit was costing the county about $8200. Hamill was overseeing the project and was vociferous in defending it.

During the course of reporting that story, I became interested in reviewing any e-mail messages Hamill may have sent or received concerning the pricey contract. So I filed a public records request, set up an appointment with one of the county's computer technicians, and arrived at the airport at the prescribed date and time to review Hamill's e-mail. I had done this in the past with other airport officials, and each time the computer technician would retrieve the files I had requested and help me make copies of anything I needed. Usually the process would take half an hour. But with Hamill nothing was so simple.

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