First Class All the Way
It had been a long, hard-fought political campaign, and for months Katy Sorenson had been promising her family that when it was finally over, they would take a much needed vacation. And so this past November, during the week of Thanksgiving, Dade County's newest commissioner flew off to Hawaii with her husband and two children. It was warm and beautiful and it went by far too quickly. Leaving the islands was going to be hard enough; the thought of a long, cramped, uncomfortable plane ride back to Miami only made it worse.
But as Sorenson learned, membership in Dade County's power elite has its advantages A even when you're 5000 miles from home. On the return trip, American Airlines moved Sorenson and her family from coach to first class. Spacious seats. Attentive service. Excellent food and complimentary drinks. All of it free of charge, a professional courtesy. Solely because she is a Dade County commissioner. "It is certainly a VIP perk," Sorenson acknowledges.
That particular perk was worth approximately $4000. And it may have violated Dade's ethics code, which prohibits all county employees, including commissioners, from asking for special treatment and privileges because of their positions with the county. Violations of the code can be prosecuted by the State Attorney's Office and are punishable by up to a $500 fine and 30 days in jail.
If Sorenson broke any laws by stepping up to first class, she might take some comfort in the knowledge that she's hardly alone. For years county commissioners, their staff members, and other high-ranking county bureaucrats have routinely asked for (and in some cases demanded) free upgrades to first class from airlines flying out of Miami International Airport. And they have done so for travel both personal and professional. Some airline companies willingly provide such favors to commissioners and other county officials who make decisions affecting their operations at the airport, but at least one carrier, American Airlines, has recently declared that the practice in Miami is out of control and must be stopped.
That Sorenson could so quickly have discovered these so-called courtesy upgrades is testament to their pervasiveness. Shortly after her election, she says, an aviation department employee informed her that airlines regularly bumped commissioners up to first class on a space-available basis. The employee, Dickie Davis, then told Sorenson to call her when she was about to travel; Davis would check with the airline to determine whether an upgrade could be arranged.
A short time later Sorenson contacted Davis regarding her family's plans for a vacation in Hawaii, and asked if an upgrade was possible. Davis said she'd check. "I was trying to make her feel welcome to the county," recalls Davis, who is the aviation department's assistant director for marketing and terminal operations. "I was just trying to be nice. I made it clear to her that I wouldn't do anything that was improper. I would only do something that was commonly done by others."
Davis called one of her contacts at American Airlines, who entered into the company's computer system a message that Sorenson and her family should be moved up to first class if seats were available. When the Sorenson clan arrived at MIA, they learned that all first-class seats between Miami and Hawaii were taken, so no upgrade was possible. But the return trip proved to be more accommodating. "It just meant we were able to sleep more comfortably," Sorenson says. "My position on VIP perks is that I feel they are okay as long as they don't hurt anyone. But I can understand there might be a problem with how this is perceived."
Dickie Davis admits that Sorenson wasn't the first county official to have received her assistance in obtaining airline upgrades. "Surely I've done it before or I would not have known how to do it for Katy," she concedes. But Davis claims she can't recall the names of others she may have helped. Nor can she remember which person at American Airlines she spoke to about Sorenson's travel plans. "I know many people at American," she says.
With regard to Dade's ethics laws as they pertain to such "VIP perks," Davis says she relied on Sorenson, and Sorenson says she relied on Davis. The newly elected commissioner assumed it wasn't a violation because it was arranged by the county's own aviation department. Davis counters by saying, "I don't know what their code of ethics are. I thought I would offer and it would be up to her to decide if it was all right."
Since Sorenson's November trip, Davis says she's received one other inquiry about an upgrade. "I remember someone calling me from one of the airlines asking me who someone was," she recounts. "They were trying to see if the person was really some big shot." She contacted a few people, determined that the individual in question was influential, and reported back to the airline. Today Davis can't recall either the airline or the name of the "big shot."
Indeed, there are so many big shots in Miami it's hardly surprising an airport official would lose track of a name now and then. In addition to Sorenson, County Commission Chairman Art Teele admits he accepts courtesy upgrades from various airlines, as do airport director Gary Dellapa and his second in command, Amaury Zuriarrain. Commissioners Maurice Ferre and Pedro Reboredo (who chairs the commission's powerful aviation committee) also acknowledge asking for upgrades. And according to sources within the aviation department and others familiar with the subject, Commissioner Natacha Millan, former county manager Joaquin Avi*o, several assistant county managers, and former commissioners Joe Gersten and Larry Hawkins all have repeatedly asked for free upgrades from airline companies doing business at MIA.
"I have requested them and I have gotten them," says Ferre. "There's no conflict because I don't take them from just one particular airline. It isn't just American. It's also United and USAir. The best of the bunch is United -- they are a dream."
American Airlines, which operates nearly half of all flights out of the airport, used to hold the same appeal for Ferre. At the time he was elected to the commission, in April 1993, American would regularly upgrade commissioners on a space-available basis. "It was real easy and simple and it happened a lot," he explains, adding that he was afforded the luxury treatment on "70 to 80 percent" of the occasions he flew, both for business and pleasure. But a few months ago American tightened its policy by requiring approval of such upgrades from its officials in Miami and from corporate headquarters in Dallas. Following this change, Ferre says, he was only upgraded about half the time. In the past few months, he laments, American's policy has changed once again; now it is even more difficult to secure a complimentary first-class seat.
According to the company's corporate affairs counsel, Ted Tedesco, American's policy shift arose from a novel idea: Why not treat Dade officials "just like every other traveler in the country?" Tedesco, who is based in Dallas, says that for more than a year American executives have been confounded by the seemingly endless stream of requests for upgrades from the county's politicians, commission staffs, and other bureaucrats. "What in the hell are people doing down there?" he asks in exasperation. "It seemed like every day we were hearing about something new. More commissioners. More staff people. Every time someone flew they expected to be upgraded. And when it spread to their staffs, that was too much. We felt we had to do something."
By Tedesco's account, American Airlines has had more problems with rapacious politicos at Miami International Airport than anywhere else in the nation. "Months ago I said that our policy should be not to provide upgrades," he says. In the last six months he has written two memos to top American executives in Miami instructing them to staunch the flow. Tedesco offers two reasons for the memos to Art Torno and Peter Dolara: He was concerned that the practice of handing out upgrades to elected officials could prompt an unseemly ethics investigation; and because American considers upgrades to have real value, the company could ill afford to have the Miami habit spread to other cities.
American officials have even taken the unusual step of visiting individual commissioners to explain how they could use the airline's various frequent-flyer programs to earn mileage toward upgrades. The officials also told commissioners they could buy special stickers -- like any preferred American customer -- that would allow them upgrades when available. "If the president of GM can use upgrade stickers," Tedesco asks, "why can't commissioners from Dade County?"
Despite the education campaign and the memos to Torno and Dolara, Dade county officials have continued to ask for upgrades, says Tedesco. In response to American's efforts to assert control, tenacious staffers have found alternate means by which to wrangle the preferential treatment. "They come at you from all kinds of places," Tedesco sighs. Sorenson's November upgrade, aided by Dickie Davis, is an example. Tedesco says he learned of the incident only recently, and he still hasn't been able to identify the American employee who worked with Davis to facilitate the arrangements. So upset was Tedesco that he called aviation department director Gary Dellapa two weeks ago and screamed and pleaded with him to tell his employees that courtesy upgrades are no longer available through American.
"Why is it Ted Tedesco's job to try and control [commissioners and other county staffers]?" he asks rhetorically, his voice rising in anger. "Why don't they just have a policy and stick to it?" Tedesco says he can understand why aviation department employees and some rank-and-file American Airlines workers might want to please a commissioner or some other influential individual, but county officials, he contends, should know better than to ask. Now American is in the awkward position of having to say no at the risk of alienating key county personnel. "When we deny someone an upgrade," Tedesco notes, "they now think we are making some sort of a value judgment about who they are and how important they are. That's the unfortunate position we are now in."
Blame it on Joe Gersten. The fabled commission reprobate blazed the trail for courtesy upgrades by treating Miami International Airport as his personal fiefdom when he was a county commissioner from 1988 to 1993.
One particular incident is now legendary. Like Sorenson, he was on his way to Hawaii. Naturally he had demanded and received an upgrade on the Miami-to-Los Angeles leg of the trip, but as he checked in at the LAX ticket counter for his connecting flight to Hawaii, he was told he wouldn't be able to receive an upgrade because all first-class seats were taken. Gersten reportedly became enraged. He shouted at the ticket agent that he was a Dade County Commissioner and that American Airlines's fate at Miami International Airport was in his hands -- personally. He told the ticket agent he would have her fired. She was reduced to tears.
Tedesco recalls that he received a frantic late-night phone call in Dallas from anxious American officials in Los Angeles who were trying to figure out who this man Gersten was. "You get tired of taking calls like that," Tedesco says wearily. At that time American was negotiating with Dade County for a major expansion at MIA. Rather than confront Gersten, whose vote was pivotal, airline officials decided it would be more prudent to apologize to the commissioner for any inconvenience he may have suffered. And with that gesture, some say, American and other airlines lost control of MIA. What you offer to one commissioner, you must offer to them all.
It's unlikely that any commissioner has ever been as arrogant or abusive as Gersten, who remains a fugitive from justice following allegations he smoked crack with a Biscayne Boulevard hooker. But there is little doubt today that many county officials view the upgrades as an entitlement, a VIP perk that comes with the job. Commission Chairman Art Teele, for example, is a forthright defender of the practice. "I routinely pay for upgrades and I have my travel vouchers to prove it," Teele says. "But I don't want to mislead you. On some occasions I have been afforded an upgrade as a matter of courtesy. I am certain that I have received those."
Although he says he's never used the aviation department to obtain an upgrade for himself, he does often ask county staff at the airport to make arrangements for dignitaries. "I just requested an upgrade for a senior White House staffer who was visiting Miami," Teele offers.
"I'm surprised any commissioner would have to request an upgrade for himself," the chairman continues. "They normally would be recognized at the airport and offered the service." Typically, Teele explains, he is upgraded because airline personnel know who he is and are simply being hospitable, whether he's flying for business or pleasure. "American Airlines and USAir and Delta people are always very courteous to me," he says.
Teele may not actually ask for the favor, but he sees nothing wrong with those commissioners who do. After all, he says, it is routine practice for airlines to provide free upgrades to governmental employees who oversee the industry. (Ted Tedesco strongly disagrees. "American does not do that," he huffs.) Furthermore, Teele argues, the issue of airline courtesies is ludicrously trivial when compared to the many serious and complicated problems facing the county. "This is a full-time job for which we are only paid $6000 a year," he retorts, "and I just have a hard time nickel-and-diming county commissioners who are receiving some perk that doesn't amount to any real financial benefit."
Commissioner Maurice Ferre goes a step further. "I see absolutely nothing wrong with it," he declares. "I think an organization that spends $1.2 million on air travel, which Dade County does, should get certain considerations."
Commissioner Pedro Reboredo acknowledges he's asked for and received upgrades from airlines since his election in 1993. The chairman of the commission's aviation committee says he tries to use various frequent-flyer programs, but he notes that "sometimes you might not have the coupons with you, so you ask if there is any availability, and if there is, they'll give it to you."
Recently Reboredo asked for an American Airlines upgrade for a trip to Geneva, Switzerland. Though he was turned down, the commissioner believes he was justified in making the request because he was traveling to a human rights meeting and was carrying onboard a lot of conference material. First class simply provided more space. "You can extrapolate to the maximum," he says by way of dismissing the suggestion he may have violated the county's ethics code.
Commissioner Natacha Millan refused to answer questions about courtesy upgrades, though sources within the aviation department claim she has received them. Commissioner Alex Penelas says that only once has he received a free upgrade, while flying on personal business from Miami to Honduras in 1993. "It was unsolicited, I didn't ask for it," he recalls. "The clerk at the ticket counter recognized me and asked if I'd like to be upgraded and I said, 'Sure, why not?'"
Commissioner Bruce Kaplan, who logs at least 100,000 flight miles per year as part of his international law practice, says he has never asked for or received an upgrade based on his status as a county commissioner. "Because I fly so much," he explains, "I've got more coupons for upgrades than I know what to do with." Commissioners Gwen Margolis and Miguel Diaz de la Portilla also say they have neither asked for nor received a courtesy upgrade. (Commissioners James Burke, Betty Ferguson, Dennis Moss, and Javier Souto could not be reached for comment late last week.)
Assistant County Manager Tony Ojeda, however, asks for and receives first-class upgrades with regularity, either through the aviation department or the county's designated travel agency. "On a fourteen-hour trip to Chile or Paraguay, I definitely try to get upgraded," he says, adding that he travels to those countries several times each year on county business. Ojeda may have also received upgrades for his personal travel, though he says he is not certain.
Commission staffers are also known to ask for special consideration. In July 1994, for instance, Jackie Bofill, who at the time was executive assistant to Commissioner Sherman Winn, flew to the Canary Islands with her husband as part of the county's Sister Cities program. On the flight over, she asked for and received a courtesy upgrade to business class. "I have friends at American," says Bofill. She never considered that the request might have been an ethics violation. "I think a lot depends on how the person asks for the upgrade and how often they do it," she says, noting that the transatlantic flight was the first and only time she's received an upgrade. "I don't think it's a violation if you don't abuse it."
One aviation department employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says she has handled more than 50 requests for upgrades in the past five years from commissioners, their staffs, and other county officials. She claims she rarely calls the airlines herself (an assertion doubted by others in her department) but rather forwards the requests to the county's official travel agent, Lorraine Travel. "I think most of the time the people got the upgrade or they wouldn't have kept calling me," the employee says. "After a while I was tired of being the middle person and I told people to call Lorraine directly."
Jack Guiteras, owner of Miami's Lorraine Travel, says he is unaware of any calls to his office from the aviation department, and believes it is far more likely that most upgrades are orchestrated by county staffers at MIA. But he does admit he receives requests on behalf of commissioners and other county officials who want free upgrades, and he helps when he can. "Some commissioners we never hear from at all," says Guiteras, who spoke to New Times with reluctance. "It's really three or four at most that we regularly get calls from about upgrades." Guiteras refuses to identify the commissioners by name.
Lorraine Travel has acted as the county's travel agent for the past eight years under a contract that has been extended several times by the county commission. But the current contract is about to expire, and Lorraine is now competing against three other firms for the exclusive right to handle more than one million dollars in annual county travel business, a situation that raises some tricky questions.
Is it appropriate for commissioners to ask Lorraine for privileged treatment? Does the travel agency feel pressured to please politicians and other county executives despite possible ethics violations and American's new restrictive policies? Will the favors granted by Lorraine in the past put its competitors at a disadvantage as county commissioners consider awarding a new contract? (Katy Sorenson acknowledges receiving special coupons from Lorraine Travel that entitle her to free upgrades on USAir. She also says Lorraine arranged a courtesy upgrade for her on a January flight from Miami to Tallahassee. Other commissioners are also known to have received USAir coupons from Lorraine. Guiteras confirms that various airlines supply him with special coupons, which he then passes along to preferred customers. "We don't have any particular rhyme or reason as to how we give them out," he explains. "We probably did it with Commissioner Sorenson because she was the new kid on the block, sort of a get-to-know-you kind of thing.")
The owner of Lorraine Travel may have been reluctant to describe his company's role in obtaining upgrades, but Dade County Aviation Director Gary Dellapa has no qualms about discussing the subject. "I know we assist commissioners," he concedes. "I'm sure we do it here." His department has not designated a specific employee to process requests for upgrades, and there is no formal policy addressing the subject. But Dellapa himself has received upgrades directly from the airlines. "Half the time I get upgraded, half the time I don't," he offers. "I don't see any problem with it. Within the industry, it's a courtesy not unlike when an airline has a big issue before the commission -- we move it up to a certain time for them for their convenience."
Aviation director since 1993, Dellapa insists that the upgrades he's received have had no effect on his professional dealings with airlines doing business at MIA. "I don't know that anyone who gets a wider seat for an hour and a half from an airline, that that airline would get any special treatment," he contends.
Though Dellapa says Assistant County Attorney Murray Greenberg has approved his acceptance of upgrades, no written policy exists with regard to other aviation department employees. "I don't know that our staff accepts them," he says. "Generally it's just the leadership of the county." But airport deputy director Amaury Zuriarrain says that issue was settled more than ten years ago, at a time when airlines were willing to extend discounts and other benefits to county employees working at the airport A in much the same way the airlines offer those benefits to their own employees. Zuriarrain explains that the county manager nixed the practice because it wasn't fair to have one group of county employees favored over another.
However, neither Dellapa nor Zuriarrain could account for the apparent double standard that exists today: County "leadership," themselves included, are permitted to accept favors from airlines, but lower-ranking employees are not.
County Attorney Robert Ginsburg refuses to respond to questions regarding possible violations of Dade's ethics code as it applies to free airline upgrades. If commissioners would like to ask him for his opinion, Ginsburg says, he will offer it to them privately. To date, however, no one ever has. But some measure of his concern was evident when he asked New Times: "No one in my office has been doing that, have they?" None of his staff members appeared to be involved. Upon hearing that, Ginsburg sighed with relief, smiled, and said, "Good."
Regardless of Ginsburg's opinion on the matter, ultimate responsibility for investigating any possible violations lies with the Dade State Attorney's Office, a fact that causes some people to snicker derisively. "That makes me laugh," says a senior aviation department employee. "How many investigations have they started that go nowhere? And I'm confident that if they decided to investigate this, that it wouldn't go anywhere either. And I'm sure commissioners realize that as well."
Within days of their election, commissioners receive from Ginsburg a copy of the county's ethics code, which contains three sections that appear relevant to airline upgrades: "Disclosure," "Exploitation of Official Position Prohibited" and "Gifts."
The "Disclosure" section is simple. It requires commissioners and high-ranking county employees annually to file locally and with the Florida Secretary of State a list of any gifts having a value in excess of $25. A review of commission disclosure forms shows that no commissioner has ever listed an airline upgrade as a gift.
The "Exploitation" language is unambiguous: "No person...shall use or attempt to use his official position to secure special privileges or exemptions for himself or others..." Commissioners interviewed for this article were unable to explain why their actions did not violate this section.
The "Gifts" section, however, invites interpretation. It states that county employees, including commissioners, "shall neither solicit nor demand any gift." The ordinance defines "gift" as "the transfer of anything of economic value whether in the form of money, service, loan, travel, entertainment, [or] hospitality" without adequately paying for that item or service.
The section also targets those who would offer gifts to county employees in anticipation of favors or as a reward for actions already taken.
Some commissioners argue that the gifts section of the law does not apply because free upgrades carry no cost. According to this argument, economics are not involved when a commissioner is moved to what otherwise would be an empty seat. As the aviation department's Zuriarrain puts it: "An empty seat has no value to an airline."
But Ted Tedesco, from American Airlines, angrily rejects the no-cost argument. "It does cost us and we've proven it," he asserts. "And besides, it's not up to them to say what does or does not have value to an airline. An upgrade has value attached to it. Of course it does." By way of analogy, Tedesco points out that people can't walk into a restaurant shortly before it closes and expect a free meal just because the remaining food is about to be discarded.
As for those who would offer gifts to county employees in hopes of favorable treatment, Tedesco says American has never offered upgrades for that purpose. "We don't need to do that to make sure somebody listens to us," he says. However, other airline executives appear to feel differently. Mike Ragan, a top Continental Airlines official at MIA, says he's never been asked to upgrade a commissioner, but he'd would be more than happy to do so. "We wouldn't do it for just anyone," he explains candidly. "It would have to be for someone who would have something we could get from it. They are important people."
That's the sort of attitude that has Tedesco scratching his head. "What is it about the system in Miami?" he wonders aloud. "I certainly don't know. Commissioners have a view of their role that is inflated by everyone around them. It's just amazing.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.