High Noon at MIA

If events at Miami International Airport took the form of a Western, then three months ago G.T. "Tom" Arnold would have walked into one of the airport saloons, tossed his Stetson on the bar, and announced his arrival by declaring, "Boys, there's a new sheriff in town, and there's gonna be some changes 'round these parts." As Wyatt Earp brought law and order to an untamed Dodge City, transforming it into a place where decent, God-fearin' people could live and work, Arnold has been charged with cleaning up the county's aviation department, itself a lawless frontier populated by political scoundrels and contract rustlers.

I'm sure Arnold will cringe at this Western analogy. He loathes being in the spotlight, in the same way Gary Cooper's character in High Noon never wanted the attention he drew. But let's face it, the Western motif certainly sounds better than this: "There's a new assistant director for standards and compliance at the aviation department, and there are going to be some changes in the procurement procedures at this agency."

No matter how anyone says it, though, one thing is certain: Arnold, a deputy director at the Miami-Dade Police Department on loan to the airport, has an opportunity to transform the county's most important economic asset.

Arnold isn't responsible for rooting out corruption in the traditional sense. He's not there to build cases against individual county commissioners or airport staffers; the FBI and the public-corruption unit of the Miami-Dade Police Department are actively doing that already. Rather Arnold is there to shine a light on those places where corruption can easily hide. He has undertaken a top-to-bottom review of how the airport conducts its business, with the hope of creating a system of checks and balances that will make it harder for elected officials and select bureaucrats to abuse the public's trust.

"It is a very large, complex place and operation; it took me just about a month to figure out where the bathroom is," he says with a laugh. "They wanted to bring in someone from the outside with a different perspective. Which is good. You come in and you don't already have a preconceived idea about how things should operate. You just don't accept the way things are."

One of the first areas to attract Arnold's attention was the method by which the airport buys goods and services. "I identified more than 60 people at the airport who did procuring activities," he recalls, a bit dumbfounded. "With more than 60 people spread out through the department doing procurement, there is just a total lack of consistency. And if there is a lack of consistency, then it becomes very difficult to identify areas that aren't following the right rules. You get different interpretations as to what it means to solicit a proposal and what it means to select a proposal.

"The way it developed here," he continues, "the people who used the goods or the service on a day-to-day basis were the ones who procured the goods or the service. So let's say as an example I am a supervisor in the terminal who supervises, among other things, janitorial services [which are provided by private companies hired by the county]. Well, I deal with these companies every single day. I know them personally. I know their workers. I know what they do, I know how they do it. I've been working with them for five or six years.

"Now it comes time to [solicit proposals for] a new janitorial contract. Just on the surface that has a bad feel to it, because I'm writing up the contract, and I'm writing up the specifications, and I'm involved in making the selection. I could be as scrupulously objective as possible, but still it just smells bad. It puts me in a very difficult position. There is a subliminal aspect to it, too. If in fact I am so familiar with these people and how they operate, I might think the way they do things is the only way to operate, so when I sit down to write my specifications, I end up with specifications that kind of fit their operation more than anyone else's. I'm not trying to steer business their way, but it works out that way and it's not fair."

Another prime example of procurement trouble is the airport's telecommunications contract with Williams Communications Solutions, Inc., a company commonly known by its former name, WILTEL. Arnold was shocked to discover that the airport is still operating under a contract first drafted seventeen years ago. "The contract was written in 1982 and it was never modified; it was just renewed year after year after year," he says. "It made sense for what they were doing in 1982. It does not make any sense whatsoever for what we are doing today."

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede