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.
Ground zero for the Saturday-night adventure was the Savoy Hotel on Ocean Drive. Problems developed almost immediately. Beguiristain says eight of the limos failed to materialize, which meant that approximately 80 revelers didn't have a ride. "Only 22 cars were used," she claims.
But Prieto, Rodriguez, and Lopez say a total of 38 limos arrived, and all were used. They also say there were far more participants waiting at the Savoy than the requested number of vehicles could handle. According to Prieto's records, only three limos skipped out. "One just didn't show up, and that's wrong," he explains. "But the other two saw what a madhouse this was going to be and backed out." Luckily Rodriguez had six six-person cars on standby, which he brought to the rescue. (An article in the Miami Herald the following day reported 34 limousines were used at the event.)
Nonetheless the Historical Museum is now refusing to pay Prieto for anything more than 22 autos. "We're only paying for the ones that showed up," Beguiristain declares. Prieto says he received a check for $3389, but that amount, he contends, is about $5000 short of the total bill. (Beguiristain won't divulge dollar figures but says Prieto accepted the check as "payment in full." Prieto denies it.)
Raul Rodriguez gripes that the museum won't pay the $2000 he says he is owed for the extra limos he supplied at the last minute. Beguiristain insists that any money due Rodriguez will have to come from Prieto. The dispute has become so strained that museum officials aren't even taking Rodriguez's calls. "We will not process your invoice," declared museum president Randy Nimnicht in a recorded message left on Rodriguez's answering machine. "I will not accept your telephone calls. I want to be polite about this, but we're tired of playing games."
Jesus Prieto says he's tired of the hassle as well. He decided to go public with the controversy only after receiving what he perceived to be a threat from Nimnicht and Beguiristain. "Cuqui called saying she needs a list of all the limo drivers and all the limo companies that participated so that she can report them to the appropriate agencies," Prieto recalls. "She was using intimidation tactics to scare me."
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Nimnicht acknowledges the request for names, and admits calling the county's consumer affairs department. "It's very interesting," he says. "We called the county department that regulates limo drivers, and they said there are a lot of problems in this industry."
The rancor that has resulted from those "problems," whatever they may be, could lead to the cancellation of next year's Historic Pursuit Limo Rally, according to Cuqui Beguiristain. "It's horrible to think this event may never happen again because of [Prieto]," she laments.
Toni Lopez of Planet Limo, who claims he's out $1300 and that his cars came back in "fairly bad condition," would place the blame elsewhere. "If they cancel the rally," he says, "it's because the museum messed up. It was poorly planned from the beginning. [Beguiristain] has done this before. Somebody needs to give her a swift kick in the butt."