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When the Historical Museum of Southern Florida offered limousine broker Jesus Prieto the job of rounding up more than 30 luxury vehicles for the museum's annual road rally last month, he was ecstatic. This was the grand prix of local limousine-rental jobs. The museum fundraiser is a swank affair, and undoubtedly would garner attention for Prieto's two-year-old business, LimoWeb U.S.A. Better still, he'd be doling out work to half a dozen companies, earning goodwill and contacts. "This is something that, if all goes well, will generate trust from several other organizations, and I would get additional jobs for other events," recounts the 40-year-old Prieto, who is disabled as a result of a car accident. "Boy, was I happy!"
But by the conclusion of the November 6 rally, no one was happy. Museum officials claim Prieto failed to supply the required number of limos, which had disastrous consequences: Many participants were left stranded, and the nonprofit organization will now be forced to refund money it sorely needs.
Not so, say Prieto and the heads of at least two limo companies. More than enough vehicles were provided. The museum, they contend, misrepresented the number of participants and therefore the number of limousines needed. Furthermore, after the companies scrambled to come up with extra cars, the museum refused to pay for them. Prieto is caught in the middle. The museum, he says, owes him several thousand dollars, money he needs to pay the firms he subcontracted.
The five-year-old Historic Pursuit Limo Rally, which Harper's Bazaar magazine has deemed to be one of the best of its type in the nation, is a scavenger hunt organized by a museum support group made up of young professionals who call themselves the Tropees (short for Tropical Pioneers). Members of the Tropees' executive council include lawyers who work at some of Miami's most prestigious firms, as well as executives at the county's aviation department, the public school system, and Jackson Memorial Hospital. Aides to two county commissioners also sit on the council.
Participants in the rally pay $100 each to cram into stretch limousines with a dozen or more friends who work as a team. The booze-fueled journey takes them to several bars and restaurants in Miami and Miami Beach. At each stop the team piles out of the limo and attempts to solve a clever riddle. Points are awarded for correct answers, and the winning team enjoys the honor of being -- well, the winning team. It's all high-spirited good fun, and it generates in the neighborhood of $40,000 each year for the museum, which is located in the Miami-Dade Cultural Plaza at 101 W. Flagler St.
But a young professional's night of fun can be a working stiff's nightmare.
After Prieto got the job, he began hearing unsettling stories about the rally. Many of the limousine companies he contacted were wary of getting involved. Business owners complained that in years past their vehicles had been vandalized, police had ticketed their drivers because drunken passengers ignored warnings not to hang out of windows and sunroofs, and afterward they had had trouble collecting the money they were owed. Enough companies wanted to steer clear of the event that Prieto found it difficult to procure all the limos he needed.
Rojelio Jofre, owner of Touch of Class Limousines, says he refused to take part this year after a bad experience in 1998. "They don't pay me anything. Always trouble, always trouble," he says in broken English. "The people, they are unsafe in the limousines; they make you stop in the middle of the street. Last year I give three limousines. I collect $500. They still owe me $400." Toni Lopez, president of Planet Limo, says he has yet to receive $800 outstanding from last year. Starline Limousine owner Raul Rodriguez claims he is still owed $2175 from 1998's event.
Historical Museum community relations director Cuqui Beguiristain asserts that the museum paid last year's account in full. Any monetary disputes, she says, should be taken up with 1998's limousine broker. That was Norman Dacosta of Seven Star Transportation. He says whatever disagreements may have arisen last year were resolved to everyone's satisfaction.
But one driver, who asked not to be identified, says local chauffeurs know better. "It's notorious," she says of the scavenger hunt. "[Participants] drink a lot and trash the vehicles. A lot of drivers don't want to take part in it." Beguiristain disagrees. She says the feedback she's received from drivers is that they like to work the event because the tips are good.
Prieto, alarmed but undaunted, eventually secured commitments for 32 ten-passenger limos and several reserve vehicles in case of problems. Nearly all the companies he signed up had never worked the party. Complaints aside, Lopez of Planet and Rodriguez of Starline were among those providing cars, largely as a favor to their friend and colleague Prieto.
Not only did Rodriguez agree to participate, he donated a vehicle free of charge so members of the Tropees' executive council could drive the route beforehand. The itinerary included Soyka restaurant in Miami and Miami Beach clubs Bar Room and Blue. Perhaps as a portent, a Miami police officer pulled over the limo on Biscayne Boulevard because the Tropees were standing up in the sunroof and waving at people, despite the driver's admonitions that they stay seated. The cop threatened the chauffeur with a $250 citation if his passengers didn't sit down and behave. Prieto used that incident as a pretext for demanding that museum officials instruct all participants on proper conduct inside the vehicles. "It's the driver who gets in trouble, not the passengers," he points out.