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.

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.

Not all Millan's junkets are subsidized by governments (whether Spain's or ours). One recent trip came courtesy of cosmetics giant Estee Lauder. A couple of months ago the company, which sells its merchandise at MIA, flew Millan and Mayor Alex Penelas's wife Lilliam to New York City for two days to participate in an event it was sponsoring, an event Millan repeatedly referred to as "Breast Awareness Month" but which in fact was "Breast Cancer Awareness Month."

Millan, of course, isn't the only commissioner who travels. Earlier this year Commissioner Gwen Margolis suffered through a European excursion -- hitting London, Paris, and Vienna -- with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony. (No, she wasn't sitting in with the violins. She and members of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau were promoting Miami as a bastion of culture and fine art.) Last year she went to Spain.

Other commissioners take the occasional working journey as well. Miriam Alonso flew to Ecuador last year, Miguel Diaz de la Portilla shuttled off to the Canary Islands, Dennis Moss spent a couple of days in the Bahamas, Jimmy Morales ambled down to Costa Rica, and Javier Souto sauntered off to Guatemala.

But no one can compare with Millan's nomadically ramblin' spirit. She noted that when Commissioner Pedro Reboredo was chairman of the committee that oversaw the airport, he wasn't reluctant to travel, either. And she's right.

Between 1993 and 1996, Reboredo hit all the international hot spots: Madrid, Paris, London, and Frankfurt. He also traveled an inordinate amount in North America. According to county travel records, he would jump on a jet and "inspect" various airports. During those three years, he eyeballed airports in Seattle, Vancouver, Boston, New York, Newark, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and Denver.

Just imagine him wandering through these facilities, perhaps wearing a spiffy uniform and white gloves.

What's that over there?
That's the runway, sir.
What's that for?
That's where the planes land.
Ah, very good, very good. I'm pretty sure we've got one of those in Miami.

Between Reboredo's rigorous inspections, Millan's global vision, and all the conferences attended by aviation department staffers, you'd think Miami's would rank among the greatest airports in the world. It doesn't. It's a joke. And you don't need to go to Spain or China to recognize that.

Just walk through MIA. The roof leaks. The carpet looks like crap. The food is awful. And it took years to provide something as simple as baggage carts for passengers. Perhaps Millan can do for some sprawling state agency what she's done for MIA. Perhaps she can apply those same high ethical standards to the Department of Children and Families or the Department of Elder Affairs. As Jeb Bush considers a Millan appointment, he might want to consider that as well.

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