The Junket Queen

As Gov.-elect Jeb Bush ponders whether Miami-Dade County Commissioner Natacha Millan merits a position in his administration, he may first want to make sure the state's travel budget can afford her. Millan loves to visit faraway places, especially when somebody else is paying. In the past two years she's taken fourteen trips at taxpayer expense, racking up nearly $20,000 in bills worldwide. She's been to Beijing and Hong Kong. She went to Paris and Portugal. And then there is Spain.

Millan has spent so much time exploring the Iberian Peninsula over the past two years she could run for the Spanish senate as a legal resident. Taxpayers picked up the tab for Millan jetting off to Spain three times since October 1996. During her 1997 jaunt she spent eleven days shuttling between Madrid and Seville, with a side trip to Portugal. Her hotel bill in Seville alone ended up costing taxpayers $975 for three nights.

Indeed she's become such a valued guest that earlier this month the government of Spain flew her over and picked up all expenses and feted her during her four-day stay in the country. Sort of a buy-three-trips-get-one-free deal. The airport's deputy director Amaury Zuriarrain and one of its assistant directors accompanied Millan and were also treated to a free trip.

"They are all airport-related," Millan recently explained in defending her globetrotting. Her jet-set ways commenced when she became chairwoman of the commission's aviation committee in 1996, and even though that committee was abolished more than a year ago when all commission committees were eliminated, she has continued to be Miami International Airport's roving ambassador. All her foreign trips, she insists, have promoted and developed business for MIA.

Just last week the county commission approved an agreement with a private company in Spain to form a consulting group that would advise Latin American countries in privatizing operations at some of their airports.

It's not all business, though. Sometimes she tacks on a few extra days for sightseeing; on two county-related trips she's brought along a grandchild, whose expenses, she is quick to point out, she paid for.

The true cost of her excursions, however, is actually higher than the $20,000 figure would suggest. Millan, it seems, doesn't like to travel alone. Besides the occasional family member (whom she pays for), she frequently drags with her a more formal entourage (which taxpayers pay for). A member of her personal staff will usually accompany her, as will several senior aviation department employees. Take that $20,000 figure and triple it, possibly even quadruple it, to arrive at a more complete picture of Millan's travel costs.

The year's most expensive trip was her journey to the exotic Far East. County taxpayers spent more than $1500 flying her to Asia, and another $2100 on hotels and food during her seven-day sojourn. And that was just for Millan. She also brought along her chief of staff, Terry Murphy, and two members of the aviation department, Pete Cajigal, chief of cargo development, and Bruce Drum, an assistant aviation director.

While in Beijing, Millan attended a conference dubbed Cargo Week 98, which was hosted by the International Air Transport Association and included discussions on methods by which airports should handle the shipment of hazardous materials.

Following three days in Beijing, Millan and the boys flew to Hong Kong, where they signed in at another conference, this one titled Air Freight Asia 98. According to the program for this confab, it featured seminars on topics such as "Is air freight ready to go multimodal?" and "To own or not to own a freighter fleet."

My favorite seminar: "Are we serious about reducing shipment times?" Among the panel of international experts leading this vital seminar was our very own Natacha Millan.

Shipment times! I've got a better question: "Are we serious about cutting wasteful government spending?" And just when did Millan become a world-renowned authority on cargo-shipment times? "You know perfectly well, DeFede, that I'm not going to say I'm an expert in it," she huffed. "But because I'm a commissioner, I do get briefed and I make sure that what I'm saying is the correct thing." Which explains why she brought along aviation department specialists. They were there, she said, to respond to any technical questions.

So if county staff was going to answer questions, why did she need to be there?

"I have no idea," she snapped. "If it had been my choice I wouldn't have gone."

But it was her choice, right?
"Nobody forced me," she conceded. "I said I would have rather not gone. I went. Don't twist my words, please. I'm being very honest with you. I'm being real honest with you. I know you are taping me and I know you are going to take this and write whatever the heck you want to. I cannot answer for other civilizations. They are very much into pomp and circumstance."

Millan's implication being that it was important for her to attend as an elected official representing Miami-Dade County. But if that were true, why was she the only elected official on her panel? Looking through the programs, in fact, I couldn't find any other elected officials in attendance at Cargo Week 98 or Air Freight Asia 98. Mostly it was bureaucrats and representatives of various airlines.

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