A few years ago I wrote a series of articles titled "Micky Arison Is a Greedy Corporate Pig" that decried Arison's efforts to force the county to build a new waterfront arena for his basketball team, the Miami Heat. The headline was a takeoff on the best-selling book by comedian Al Franken,Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot
Since then, of course, Limbaugh has lost a great deal of weight, and though his politics are still repugnant, his waistline looks marvelous.
Unfortunately for Arison, nothing about him has improved. He is still a greedy corporate pig. In fact after reading the three articles that follow, which explore various aspects of Arison's Carnival Cruise Lines, I now realize my description of him may have been too forgiving. Referring to Micky Arison as a pig was actually a compliment.
Already I can hear the shouting: How can I say such a vile thing? Isn't Arison a generous contributor to many deserving charities? Isn't he a faithful patron of the arts?
Sure he is. The money he donates to those causes, however, is but a mere pittance in relation to his vast wealth. This past September Forbes magazine estimated his net worth to be $5.1 billion. The few million he tosses to local institutions is designed to feed his ego while simultaneously blinding people to the ugly truth about him and his family.
Micky Arison and his late father Ted created the family fortune by exploiting Third World laborers and by registering their vessels in foreign countries so they wouldn't be subject to U.S. taxes. According to some experts, this nifty bit of evasion, which Arison and his lobbyists spend a small fortune protecting in Congress, annually costs the American people roughly 360 million dollars that Carnival would otherwise be paying. One particularly cynical tax scheme the family attempted to pull off met with failure late last year. Ever the artful tax-dodger, Ted Arison renounced his U.S. citizenship in 1990 and moved to Israel. He knew that if he lived ten years outside the United States after abandoning the country that made him rich, his Miami relatives wouldn't have to pay hefty estate taxes after his death.
Well, don't let anyone tell you God doesn't have a sense of humor. Just a few months shy of reaching his tenth anniversary abroad, Ted Arison died of heart failure.
Greedy? Cynical? Shamefully exploitative? Don't take my word for it. Read the compelling stories that follow, written by staff writers Kirk Nielsen, Tristram Korten, and Ted B. Kissell. Nielsen's article, "The Perfect Scam," depicts life below deck for Carnival's lowliest laborers, who work 90 to 100 hours per week for as little as $150. Nielsen interviewed nearly two dozen of Arison's "fun ship" employees, who describe not only substandard working conditions but pervasive racism. Evading U.S. labor laws and treating employees like slaves are two benefits Arison enjoys as a result of registering his ships in Panama and Liberia.
Korten's article, "Carnival? Try Criminal," examines allegations that Carnival Cruise Lines protects employees suspected of sexually assaulting passengers by obstructing investigations into the crimes. A federal grand jury has been impaneled in Miami to scrutinize the company's actions. Korten interviewed the former chief of security for Carnival, who says he wasn't allowed by his superiors to contact the FBI when a sex crime occurred onboard one of his ships. The company denies this, but then brags that there has never been a successful prosecution of a sexual-assault case stemming from an incident aboard any Carnival cruise ship.
Could it be that Arison is more interested in protecting his company from lawsuits and damaging publicity than he is in protecting his passengers from harm? You can draw your own conclusions after reading Korten's article and learning more about the crack security team Arison now employs to protect his customers. The story raises a number of disturbing questions, including this: Who is worse, the rapist or the person who protects the rapist through overt acts or by intentional negligence?
In the final piece, Kissell profiles Micky and his father. "The Deep Blue Greed" concentrates on their wealth and their remarkable success in avoiding taxes.
Micky Arison, of course, isn't the first American to exploit poor workers from foreign countries, nor is he the only corporate citizen to cheat the government out of its fair share of taxes. But he is one of the most brazen. Particularly galling is the added insult that he is considered a hero in Miami because he owns a basketball team. If only Idi Amin could have obtained an NBA franchise. History might have regarded him differently, too.
So why does Congress allow someone like Micky Arison to get away with his special brand of corporate mischief? Money.
Over the years Arison has pumped a staggering amount of cash into the campaign coffers of politicians, Democratic and Republican alike. He does it personally through individual contributions, and he does it through the cruise industry's political action committee, the International Council of Cruise Lines (ICCL). In the 1998 congressional elections alone, Arison wrote checks totaling more than $27,000 to a dozen candidates ranging from Republican Sen. Alfonse D'Amato of New York to Florida's Democratic stalwart, Bob Graham. During that same election cycle, Arison's wife Madeleine wrote another $40,000 in checks to influential senators and representatives.
The cruise industry's ICCL donated $168,146 to various candidates in 1998. Republicans received $89,146 while Democrats raked in $79,000. And which House member benefited most from ICCL largess? None other than Miami Republican Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who garnered $6500. Diaz-Balart sits on the Rules Committee, arguably the most powerful committee in the House. It may not sound exciting, but the committee plays a crucial legislative role by determining the rules of debate for every bill that passes through Congress. Control the debate and often you control the fate of the bill. So Diaz-Balart is in a wonderful position to stymie any legislation Arison and the cruise industry don't like.
In addition to campaign donations, Arison and his fellow cruise-industry executives spend a king's ransom on lobbyists. In 1997 ICCL burned up $557,000 arm-twisting members of Congress. The bulk of that money, according to information compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C., was directed at issues relating to "taxation" (or more accurately, "taxation avoidance"). In 1998 the industry's bill for lobbying jumped to $604,000.
The cruise lines' principal Washington lobbyist is a company called Alcalde & Fay, the fifteenth-largest lobbying firm in the United States. (Read "The Deep Blue Greed" for a delightful tale about a Mississippi congressman's encounter with the firm's name partner, Hector Alcalde. It'll go a long way toward reinforcing any notions you may have about politics in our nation's capital being hopelessly corrupt.)
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Following the money and tracking the players also serve as a reminder that the political world is small and incestuous. One example: Miami-Dade County's lobbyist in Washington just happens to be Hector Alcalde and his firm Alcalde & Fay. It might be in the county's interest for cruise lines to be more aggressively taxed (with some of that money making its way back to Miami), but the county's lobbyist also represents the cruise industry, which doesn't want to pay any taxes. No conflict there, I'm sure.
Oh heck, Miami-Dade County probably doesn't need any additional tax money from Washington. Certainly the county commission has all the federal money it can handle for improving transportation, replacing our aging infrastructure, helping out worthy community groups, and generally making this a better place to live. Who needs more money?
Why, just look at Biscayne Boulevard. Thanks to Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas and his pal Arison, we now have a gleaming new sports arena that only cost taxpayers slightly more than $350 million. Whenever I drive by it, I think of the real Micky Arison -- and the women who've been raped without consequence aboard his ships and the countless laborers he's exploited and the billions in taxes he's avoided paying over the years.
Micky Arison, a genuine hero.