Airport Sleaze Aplenty

Call it trickle-down corruption. After years of watching politicians and senior county officials line their pockets -- a few getting caught, most not -- a group of low-level, rank-and-file county employees apparently decided it was their turn.

New Times has learned that a ring of eight employees at Miami International Airport has allegedly been bilking the county out of thousands of dollars through an organized effort to file bogus overtime slips with the forged signatures of their supervisors. The scheme, first detected by aviation department officials in August, has prompted an ongoing criminal investigation by the Miami-Dade Police Department's public corruption unit and the Dade State Attorney's Office. Arrests are imminent.

According to sources familiar with the investigation, an audit of payroll records reveals that the group embezzled about $20,000 during the past year. Investigators and county auditors are still reviewing time sheets and other records in an attempt to discover exactly when the fraud began, but they believe it was sometime in 1997.

All of these employees worked in the maintenance division of the aviation department, which has recently been rife with tales of mismanagement and wasteful spending. Until last week, the head of the maintenance division was John Hamill, an acerbic, controversial figure who abruptly resigned this past Friday.

At least half of the employees under investigation were considered trusted allies of Hamill, and may have felt emboldened to mount a campaign of petty thievery believing their status as the boss's buddies would protect them if they were caught. It didn't.

Indeed it was their arrogance that eventually betrayed them. Several individuals were so brazen they openly talked about cheating the county. Eventually supervisors in the airport's payroll section heard about it and began scrutinizing the time sheets of several individuals more closely. Sure enough, during the very next pay period, supervisors discovered a bogus request for overtime. A broader review then commenced, and the scope of the fraud was revealed.

Key to the illicit scheme was the fact that two of the eight employees were clerks in the payroll section of the maintenance department and were responsible for ensuring that time sheets for the approximately 600 maintenance employees were properly filled out. Their positions allowed these two clerks to assist their crooked colleagues in submitting false overtime claims.

The employees relied on three tricks. The first was to simply pad the number of overtime hours they worked in a given week. The second had staffers claiming they worked a legal paid holiday such as Christmas or Thanksgiving when in fact they did not. The third involved vacation time, known as annual leave.

Typically when MIA employees seek vacation time, they submit a request detailing their anticipated absence from work. The time is then deducted from the amount of annual leave they are allowed. This small band of maintenance workers, however, figured out a way to dupe the system. After returning from vacation, they would submit a form to personnel officials downtown claiming they had been unable to take their scheduled time off because of unforeseen problems at work. They would then ask personnel to restore the hours of annual leave that had been deducted. The form would contain the forged signature of their supervisor. Employees could then take additional vacation time or "cash out" unused annual leave.

"If they had just kept doing what they had been doing, cheating us for an hour here and an hour there, I don't think they ever would have been caught," says Gary Dellapa, director of the Miami-Dade County Aviation Department. "But it was when they started getting more aggressive that we finally caught on."

In August, after several supervisors in the maintenance division became aware of the problem, they reported it to both John Hamill and the head of personnel for the airport, Cynthia Collins. When Hamill confronted one of the accused payroll clerks, a 27-year-old woman who had been with the county for four years, she promptly resigned.

"I was forced to resign," the woman said last week. "Hamill told me that if I didn't resign, the cops are going to come down here and get me. I got really scared." She claimed she did nothing wrong, though she said she was aware that others may have been cheating the county. "I feel mad, but at the same time I feel like he did me a favor," she added. "This way it doesn't go on my record why I resigned."

Hamill's boss was not very happy the woman was allowed to resign. "She should have been suspended pending an investigation," said Dellapa, "and if she was found to have committed a crime, then she should have been fired and not simply allowed to resign."

Hamill did not respond to a request for an interview.

I first met John Hamill nearly two years ago when I was working on a story about the airport's ridiculous program to install new toilet seats. Each fancy unit was costing the county about $8200. Hamill was overseeing the project and was vociferous in defending it.

During the course of reporting that story, I became interested in reviewing any e-mail messages Hamill may have sent or received concerning the pricey contract. So I filed a public records request, set up an appointment with one of the county's computer technicians, and arrived at the airport at the prescribed date and time to review Hamill's e-mail. I had done this in the past with other airport officials, and each time the computer technician would retrieve the files I had requested and help me make copies of anything I needed. Usually the process would take half an hour. But with Hamill nothing was so simple.

For one thing, Hamill, whose annual salary was $108,000, maintained a secret password for his work-related computer files and was reluctant to share it, even though under state law his files are public record. Once it was made clear to him he had no choice, he relented. Then the strangest thing happened.

When the technician called up Hamill's e-mail files, I could see on the computer screen that he'd stored more than 2000 old messages. But suddenly that number began to change. It rapidly dropped to 1857 e-mail messages. Then 1629 messages. Then 1398. "I don't believe it," the technician muttered as the number of messages dropped faster than a jumbo jet in a downdraft.

As the two of us sat dumbfounded in the aviation department's main computer room, Hamill was in his office in a building on the other side of the airport, feverishly deleting his e-mails before I could read them. Finally the number of messages bottomed out at a couple of dozen.

Hamill apparently didn't think the computer technician and I were going to retrieve his files right away and probably hoped that by the time we finally did log on, we would see only a few dozen old messages and believe that was the extent of it.

Needless to say, I was not pleased, and made that fact known to Gary Dellapa, who immediately ordered his staff to find a way to recover all the messages Hamill had deleted. That process took several hours, during which time Hamill's access to the computer system was blocked. I ended up staying at the airport until well after midnight reading through Hamill's 2000 messages. I wish I could report that in those e-mails I found the smoking gun that would have ripped the lid off airport corruption. But I didn't.

Maybe I missed it. Maybe it was never there. Regardless, something provoked Hamill to quickly delete all those messages. At the time, Dellapa told me that Hamill admitted deleting the files, yet no disciplinary action was taken against him.

My interest in Hamill has been shared by others. A couple of years ago a group of Miami-Dade detectives raided his office and ordered his staff to immediately back away from their computers. The detectives then spent several hours not only looking through employee computer files, but also checking the telephones and phone lines throughout the building in search of eavesdropping equipment. Dellapa later acknowledged the raid was prompted by widespread rumors that Hamill was spying on his own employees. The detectives found nothing.

More recently the 40-year-old Hamill faced criticism because of a series of management problems in the maintenance division. Late last month a supervisor working under Hamill was arrested after it was discovered he had supervised hundreds of thousands of dollars in roof-repair work performed by a company whose owner he worked for after hours. Not only was that a blatant conflict of interest for the supervisor, but the work done by the roofing company was shoddy.

"Clearly there are inadequacies in the jobs, both in materials and workmanship," Hamill told the Miami Herald last month. "The bottom line is, the county didn't get its value." The county has also discovered that most of the work was done without proper permits, which means much of it will have to be redone. Ironically it was Hamill who bragged in 1995 that his department was doing a great job overseeing the roof-repair contract. "We're holding contractors' feet to the fire as never before," he told the Herald.

In another embarrassing episode for Hamill, last month the Herald reported a plan by the maintenance division to dispose of cargo pallets in an environmentally friendly way. Instead of dumping the wooden pallets in a landfill, they would be ground into fuel pellets for an electric plant. The process was supposed to cost the county $150,000. That amount swelled to nearly $400,000 before Hamill pulled the plug on his grand experiment. Afterward Hamill told the Herald: "We wanted to do something good for the environment. It just didn't turn out well."

And now there is the payroll scandal.
Despite these problems, Dellapa continued to defend Hamill. The day before the maintenance chief resigned, Dellapa was still praising his work ethic. "He is one of those guys who is driven to produce," said the director, who promoted Hamill to head of the maintenance division four years ago. "He is very much a doer." Dellapa said that when Hamill took over the division, it was unable to keep up with the demand for simple repairs around the airport terminal. Under Hamill, Dellapa claimed, airline companies using the county's facilities were much happier.

On the other hand, Dellapa also recognized that morale in Hamill's division was low. "I know he has a lot of people in his section who are not happy with him," he conceded. "I know that John is not particularly sensitive when he deals with people. That's a problem."

Dellapa's biggest complaint about Hamill was that sometimes "he will stretch a rule to get something accomplished." Though he believed Hamill's intentions were good, Dellapa said that "sometimes he just needs to be reined in a bit."

The director's admiration for Hamill did have its limits, though. Recently Hamill pushed to be promoted to an assistant director for aviation, but was denied. "He did lobby hard to get that position," Dellapa admitted.

Hamill has also been criticized for worrying too much about county hall politics. In the past he has tried to curry favor with individual commissioners, apparently in hopes of advancing his own career. In fact, several aviation officials, all of whom spoke on condition their names not be used, cited one specific incident they say typifies Hamill's political nature.

Two years ago Hamill departed from normal airport employment procedures to hire a group of thirteen semiskilled workers. Hamill handpicked the person who would lead an interview panel and then took the highly unusual step of allowing a member of county Commissioner Pedro Reboredo's staff to sit in on the decision-making process, thus fostering the widely held impression that the thirteen who were hired were chosen because all had ties to Reboredo. Worse, there remain doubts as to whether some of the individuals were even qualified to work at the airport. One of the men hired as a laborer, for example, has but one arm.

Hamill's decision to resign came suddenly. Dellapa said he encountered Hamill in the airport's employee parking lot early Friday morning and told him I was asking questions about the pending arrests and Hamill's stewardship of the maintenance division. An hour later Hamill walked into Dellapa's office with a one-sentence letter of resignation. Dellapa said he was aware Hamill was unhappy and had been thinking of resigning, adding that he was sorry to see him leave.

Later that day Hamill called a meeting of his senior staff and advised them of his decision. "He said he was tired of getting beat on and that it was time for him to find another job," recalled one source. Hamill acknowledged he didn't have a new position lined up, according to the source, but he was confident he could find something soon, given the contacts he'd developed during his eleven years at the airport.

Recently County Manager Merrett Stierheim warned the public to expect more exposure of wrongdoing in the aviation department generally and within the maintenance division in particular. True to Stierheim's words, Dellapa last week disclosed that his department may have misspent money under a controversial countywide paint contract. His staff is now reviewing records to determine the extent of the problem.

New Times has also learned that police are reviewing the landscaping contracts at MIA and the process by which the airport has been buying communications equipment, including its telephone systems. Both landscaping and telecommunications are overseen by the maintenance division.

Under the landscaping contracts, the aviation department is permitted to buy trees and other landscaping materials from a select group of vendors. The amount to be purchased from each vendor varies.

Investigators are looking into allegations that some vendors have tried to exert political influence over members of the aviation department staff in an effort to have the county spend the maximum amount allowed under their contracts. These agreements provide for a cap ($500,000, for instance) during the course of each contract. That figure is not a guarantee, however. County officials are not required to spend that much.

Naturally it is in the vendor's interest to have the county "max out" the contract by purchasing as many trees as possible. According to sources familiar with the investigation, officials in the maintenance division were being pressured to plant trees haphazardly. "They were moving so fast the airport wasn't even developing plans for where the trees should go," says one knowledgeable source. "They were just sticking them wherever they had an open space.


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