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Skid Marks on the Runway

Since last October's election of Alex Penelas as Dade mayor, Natacha Millan has emerged as the most commanding -- some would say domineering -- influence on the county commission. None of her colleagues on the dais moved as quickly to fill the power void created when Penelas, Art Teele, and Maurice Ferre resigned from the commission to run for the county's top executive post. Although a large measure of her current success is derived from her alliance with Penelas, Millan has nevertheless shown a true knack for the intricacies, and thuggery, of Dade politics.

Elected in 1993 at the advent of district elections, Millan, a former Hialeah city councilwoman, was careful not to breach the commission's informal rules of seniority, deferring to her more experienced brethren and learning from their successes as well as their failures. Rather than grandstanding on issues, she became a student of the process. And while other commissioners hired staffs filled with cronies who knew little about the county's bureaucracy, Millan sought out Terry Murphy, a seasoned political insider who had been chief of staff to then-Commissioner Larry Hawkins.

"Without question, in the last year she has moved to a higher level of commission politics," says veteran political consultant Phil Hamersmith. "She is involved in every issue. Not just every major issue, but every issue. All you have to do is watch any commission meeting and she is one of the dominant players up there. She's a pretty tough lady."

Millan does have her shortcomings. She is quick-tempered, exceptionally thin-skinned, and is known to hold a grudge longer than a professional wrestler. Once during a commission meeting, she spoke in favor of a proposed development project; but several minutes later, when the vote was taken, she surprised everyone by deliberately walking off the dais. As a result of her absence, the measure was defeated. It turned out that initially she hadn't realized the proposed developer was former Latin Builders Association president Sergio Pino, a bitter adversary. When she discovered who was behind the project, she could not bring herself to vote in favor of it.

Millan is also obsessed with the way she is portrayed in the media, particularly in newspapers such as the Miami Herald and New Times. Hardly a commission meeting goes by in which she doesn't make a derogatory comment about "those people who buy ink by the barrel."

In the coming months, a greater share of that ink is likely to flow in Millan's direction if a lawsuit filed three weeks ago in federal court is allowed to proceed. The civil suit, brought by a Dade company called JP Aviation Investments, alleges that Millan has blocked its efforts to develop 35 acres at the Opa-locka Airport. The county owns and operates the airport, and JP Aviation hopes to refurbish and build new facilities there. The firm asserts that if it weren't for Millan, who is chairwoman of the commission's Aviation Committee, it would have been awarded the lease last year.

One of the partners in JP Aviation, Jim Robinson, claims that Millan has discriminated against his firm because he is not Hispanic. He further claims that she is blocking any development at Opa-locka Airport in an effort to forestall competition for the development efforts of her good friend Carlos Herrera, president of Homestead Air Base Developers, Inc. (HABDI). "They are absolutely trying to get everybody to build in Homestead," says Robinson. "It's not right for them to bleed one airport to death to try to line the pockets of Carlos Herrera. If my name were Hernandez instead of Robinson, I'd be fine. She is absolutely, positively discriminating against us."

The lawsuit, which names both the county and Millan personally as defendants, makes other claims as well, the most sensational of which is that Millan allegedly attempted to solicit a $150,000 bribe from JP Aviation officials. The lawsuit states, "During a discussion between a JP Aviation representative and Defendant Millan, the representative told Defendant Millan that the inability of JP Aviation to have an opportunity to be heard with regard to the Lease was costing JP Aviation substantial sums of money. Defendant Millan responded, 'That's your problem. I don't care how much it's costing you. If you want to do business with the County it's your risk. If you want to do business with Dade County you've got to pay the price. HABDI has spent over $150,000 already and look where they are.' When the JP Aviation representative asked Defendant Millan to identify the department of Dade County where this $150,000 'fee' was to be paid, Defendant Millan replied that JP Aviation would have to wait. After the meeting, the JP Aviation representative understood that Defendant Millan was soliciting a payment from JP Aviation in exchange for action on the Lease."  

The JP Aviation "representative" discussed in the lawsuit is Bernard W.H. Jennings, the firm's executive vice president for operations. During an interview last week, Jennings repeated the allegations made in the lawsuit. He said the conversation took place in a parking lot outside county hall. He claimed Millan repeatedly mentioned how HABDI had spent more than $150,000 to get its lease approved. "I had the impression from Commissioner Millan that we didn't pay the price, and I wanted to know who we had to pay that price to," he said. "It could mean one of two things: Either there is a legitimate fee to be paid somewhere or there is an illegitimate one, and I don't know of any department in the county where a legitimate fee like that could be paid."

If company officials believed Millan was indeed soliciting a bribe, why didn't they report her actions to the FBI? "In the end, our goal is not to punish Commissioner Millan," responds JP Aviation attorney Ted Bartelstone. "Our goal is to be treated fairly."

Terry Murphy, Millan's chief of staff, says the commissioner is aware of the lawsuit but would not comment on it or any of its allegations. The county attorney's office, he adds, is moving quickly to have the suit dismissed. (Another lawsuit brought by JP Aviation two years ago over this same project was also dismissed.)

The current lawsuit offers no corroborating evidence that Millan was soliciting a bribe. And even Bartelstone admits the discussion that supposedly took place between Millan and Jennings was vague and could be interpreted to mean different things.

In many ways, the allegation of possible corruption detracts from the more interesting (and probably more accurate) picture the lawsuit tries to draw regarding Millan's iron-fisted control over aviation-related matters and her affinity for all things HABDI. "Commissioner Millan controls the aviation committee agenda," says Jennings, who was an aide to Art Teele when he was a commissioner. "Several other commissioners have attempted to have our lease heard on the agenda, but Commissioner Millan has refused. She keeps blocking it. It just shows her arrogance. Her attitude is pejorative and condescending to anyone who takes a position against her. I'm saying things that a lot of people know and wish they could say, but they are afraid to."

Aviation department officials believe the proposed development by JP Aviation offers a great opportunity to help revitalize Opa-locka Airport. Under the proposed agreement, JP Aviation would lease 35 acres of land at the airfield. The company's rent payments would vary according to the pace of development, but within five years aviation officials say JP Aviation would pay the county at least $16,000 per month. The firm has also agreed to spend approximately two million dollars refurbishing and constructing hangars and other facilities -- all of which would revert to the county at the end of the 35-year lease. Robinson claims he has more than a dozen tenants lined up to sublease these facilities from him.

"Opa-locka Airport is in an ideal location, but it has been abandoned and the county has let it run down," Jennings says. "This was an opportunity for the county to help uplift that airport and the Opa-locka area itself, but the project is being stalled. We think there is a deliberate effort not to develop Opa-locka Airport. There is no legitimate reason why this lease has not been approved." Adds Robinson: "We are ready to pump money into that dead airport."

Negotiations for the lease agreement were completed in 1995. It first went before the county commission February 20, 1996, but commissioners deferred action until the aviation department could hold community meetings in Opa-locka, Hialeah, and Miami Lakes to determine if area residents had any apprehensions. Those meetings were completed in October 1996.

Mayra Bustamante, assistant aviation director for business and finance, claims those community meetings elicited "a lot of concerns" from the people who live near the airport, particularly as it related to any increase in noise and traffic. As a result, she says, the project was delayed while the aviation department conducted a noise-and-traffic study.

Bustamante's version of events, however, is contradicted by another aviation department official, Jerry Weintraub, manager of aviation properties. Weintraub was directly involved in negotiating the lease and attended the neighborhood meetings. There was no community opposition, he relates, adding that he is unsure who requested the noise-and-traffic study. "I don't know where it came from," he says, "but someone said we should look into it." According to Weintraub, the study was recently completed and showed that the proposed development would have only a minimal impact on noise and traffic.

Jennings claims the study was used as a delaying tactic by senior aviation officials who want to keep Millan happy. "She has intimidated the county's aviation department staff and kept them from doing their jobs," Jennings contends. "It is well-known throughout the county that Commissioner Millan has more hopeful thoughts for the development of Homestead Air Force Base and HABDI than she does for Opa-locka."  

Robinson asserts that Millan has been pressuring some of his potential tenants to sign deals with HABDI instead. One of those firms, he adds, is Airbus Service Company, Inc. (a subsidiary of Europe's Airbus Industrie, the world's second-largest aircraft manufacturer). Robinson says the company, which operates a training facility in cramped quarters at Miami International Airport, is considering his proposal to move to Opa-locka once JP Aviation is awarded a lease. He claims that several weeks ago Millan, during a taxpayer-sponsored trip to Paris, attempted to meet with Airbus officials to discuss relocating to Homestead. It is unclear if a meeting took place, and Airbus officials refuse to comment.

"We don't have any problem with the Hispanic community at large," says Bartelstone. "We also have no particular problem with HABDI. Although we haven't reviewed it ourselves, we believe it is a worthwhile project. We just want to be treated the same."

Dade aviation's Weintraub says he does not know what is going to happen with the proposed lease. "I don't believe the county will move forward with any item while this litigation is pending," he predicts. "But who knows?


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