The Junket Queen

Although she said she met a lot of people, and believes her trip eventually will generate more airport-related business, Millan admitted that many of those contacts could have been made without flying all the way to Beijing and Hong Kong.

Before we leave the subject of China, I must ask: Did I miss something on the news about China no longer being communist? Logic would suggest that a commissioner who rails against the evils of communism in Cuba, and denounces those who engage in business with the island nation, wouldn't attend a conference in the world's largest communist nation. But Millan's love of good junkets appears to have collided with her anti-communist fervor. In this case, the junket won.

This, obviously, is a very touchy subject for the commissioner. Returning to an earlier comment she'd made ("The trip to China, which I wish I'd never done because China is a horrible place ..."), I asked Millan to explain why she regretted going.

"I didn't say I regretted the trip," she fired back. "I want you to be very clear on that. I want you to put that down, and I don't want any misprints on this. I said after I went and I talked to people who were very important, I thought perhaps that some of this could have been done closer to home. It's not that I regret the trip."

Well, then, wasn't there still some degree of hypocrisy in her going to China while publicly condemning Cuba? At this point Millan launched into a story about how she forbade those traveling with her from doing any shopping in Beijing. "I said to them, 'You are not buying here,'" she recalled proudly. "I'm not about to be part of anything that has to do with communism. It hurts too much."

But she stayed at a hotel in China. Certainly that must count as having spent money in the country. She used the Kempinski Lufthansa Hotel, which is owned by Germans. "The money never went to China," she declared. "It never went to China."

But isn't it likely the German hotel pays the Chinese government for the privilege of operating there? And suppose a group of Canadians built a hotel in Havana. Would it be acceptable for Americans to stay there?

"What are you trying to do?" she cried. "Are you trying to really bash me, is that what it is? Because I have this feeling that I am being really honest with you and you are taking it and you are twisting it. We were very careful in doing something that would not benefit the government. We ate in the hotel. I don't go to Cuba. I'm not allowed in Cuba. And when I sat there [in China], I was not happy because it reminded me how my people must be suffering."

Natacha Millan herself rarely suffers when she travels. As I first reported in 1995, she is one of those commissioners who has cultivated a taste for first-class treatment. Unfortunately for her, the county's long-standing rules prohibit it from purchasing first-class tickets when its employees (even commissioners) travel at taxpayer expense.

Millan, though, has never been shy about requesting -- some claim demanding -- free upgrades to first-class seating when she flies. And she often gets her way. Airlines operating at MIA take pains to accommodate Millan, who meddles in the day-to-day operations of the airport more than any other commissioner. No one in the airline industry wants to get on her shit list, so they go out of their way to give her preferential treatment. (Which might help explain why the Spanish government, which owns and operates Iberia Airlines, was willing to comp Millan a full-blown trip -- not just an upgrade -- to Spain.)

When I first wrote about this practice more than three years ago, commissioners scrambled for political cover and asked the county attorney's office for an opinion regarding the propriety of free upgrades. The county attorney's tortured opinion allowed that upgrades were technically legal.

That still doesn't make them ethical.
"This has already been cleared with an attorney's opinion," Millan replied when I asked if she still solicits and receives upgrades. "There are many times I travel in tourist. I flew to Paris sitting three to the aisle."

The horror.
Eventually she acknowledged that she still takes upgrades. "I can't tell you how often," she said. "If it is available, I take it. I don't make a pest of myself. We've gone through this before."

For those patriots among you who believe it is important to see America first, you'll be happy to know that Millan also travels within the good old United States. In the past two years she's taken trips to Atlanta, New York (twice), Las Vegas, and Philadelphia, all pertaining to county-related matters or conferences. She's even been to Secaucus, New Jersey, where she received the Elena Mederos Award from the National Association of Cuban-American Women.

She got the award.
Taxpayers got the bill.
Airfare for that trip was $369. Hotel was $158. Food allowance was $39. Total cost to you and me: $566. Why was it appropriate for taxpayers to pick up the tab so she could retrieve a nice plaque? "I got that award in my role as a county commissioner," she answered.

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