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It was just a few months ago that a couple of small-town mayors and one of Florida's most influential families found an innovative way to greenwash their plan for a commercial airport sandwiched between two national parks in South Miami-Dade. In a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno, they asserted the federal government was discriminating against the area's minorities and violating a presidential order by delaying development. The group called itself the Equal Justice Coalition.
The coalition mostly hoped to accelerate an environmental review of the airport site, insists Homestead Mayor Steve Shiver. "This has been studied longer than World War II," he complains.
At first it seemed to work.
The effort elicited favorable coverage in USA Today and the Washington Times. The Miami Herald devoted two stories to the group's letter. Airport booster Mayor Alex Penelas supported it. In September Penelas, Shiver, and Florida City Mayor Otis Wallace even won an audience with Vice President Al Gore to plead their case. (Owing to Hurricane Floyd, the meeting was cancelled at the last minute and has yet to be rescheduled.)
But now the credibility of the petition, which was authored by a powerful beltway lobby shop, has fallen into question. Last week twelve organizations and individuals, including the NAACP and the Sierra Club, sent their own missives to Reno, calling the letter "misleading" and "scurrilous."
"We in the NAACP have not observed any great interest in black community economic development by these development interests," wrote Adora Obi Nwese, president of the Miami-Dade branch of the NAACP. "The misuse of the environmental justice issue ... is suspect at best and cynical at worst."
The coalition's sixteen-page "Petition for Extraordinary Relief" was sent to Reno on August 10. It was written on the stationery of a Washington, D.C., law firm called Verner Liipfert Bernhard McPherson and Hand, which frequently is ranked as one of the nation's top lobbying groups. Among its partners are former senators, congressmen, and governors, including presidential candidate Bob Dole and retired Senate majority leader George Mitchell. The firm's Miami office is headed by Jorge José Lopez, who served as an aide to Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas when Penelas was a county commissioner.
The petition argues the proposed airport will offer relief to Florida City and Homestead dwellers, who live in an economic disaster area. (In fact, according to a September 1999 Homestead/Florida City Chamber of Commerce report, there are more businesses and roughly the same number of jobs in Homestead today as before Hurricane Andrew.) "The thread that separates these poor and minority residents from despair and want is the fate of Homestead Air Force Base," wrote Verner Liipfert lawyers. The document blames the White House, the Department of Interior, and environmentalists for slowing the project. Petitioners asked Reno to intercede based on a 1994 measure that President Bill Clinton approved to halt industry from polluting minority communities.
It's unclear who paid Verner Liipfert. A law firm source, who refused to be identified, says "the developer is picking up the majority of the costs." (The site's developer is Homestead Air Base Developers, Inc. (HABDI), a group composed largely of politically connected builders.) Mayor Shiver reveals the family of the late Jorge Mas Canosa paid for him and about ten others to travel to Washington, D.C., this past August to present the petition to Justice Department officials. Shiver insists no public funds were used to pay the law firm. Calls to Mayor Wallace were not returned.
In 1998 the Mas family purchased a 24 percent interest in HABDI, and Juan Carlos Mas, Mas Canosa's son, now sits on the group's board of directors. The family bought into HABDI through a company called Airport Acquisition, which listed a South Miami-Dade address on county documents. The county had set aside part of the project for South Miami-Dade community members. (Oddly enough, according to state records, Airport Acquisition is no longer an active Florida corporation. Ramon Rasco, an attorney representing Airport Acquisition, says the Mas family probably forgot to renew the company's registration, but plans to do so.)
Verner Liipfert has done far more than simply pen the Equal Justice petition. In October of this year the firm lobbied for the transfer of 200 acres of the former Homestead Air Force Base to Miami-Dade County, which already has approved the HABDI plan in a no-bid contract. Airport backers tried to slip a measure authorizing the transfer into a massive defense-spending bill during a hectic day of lawmaking. (The extent of Verner Liipfert's role is unclear, though a spokesperson acknowledges the firm lobbied for the measure.) The effort failed when environmentalists became aware and deluged local politicians with phone calls and faxes.
In response to the Equal Justice Coalition's petition, the Sierra Club organized community and minority groups to oppose it. Some wrote letters to Reno. "The local politicians signing the [Verner Liipfert] petition refuse to consider less-environmentally damaging types of development for Homestead, an intransigence that is the true root of the delays they complain so bitterly about," the Sierra Club letter states. "Those behind this [petition] have turned the notion of environmental justice on its head." Others who complained to Reno include the Haitian environmental organization Operation Green Leaves, the Farmworkers Association of Florida, the South Dade Community Council, the Redland Citizens Association, and the African-American Caribbean Cultural Arts Commission.
Some letter writers question the validity of the Verner Liipfert petition. For example, one signatory, the Coalition of Florida Farmworker Organizations, has no members. Contacting several other groups that signed the original petition is difficult. One, New Visions for South Dade, is described in an Equal Justice Coalition press release faxed to New Timesas "a group dedicated to the empowerment of minority people in the region." Its phone number is not listed. Another group called RCH-Haitian Community Radio also is unlisted. When asked how to reach the groups, Homestead Mayor Shiver acknowledged that he does not know.