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."

According to Arnold it is absurd to continue with such an old contract given the advances in telecommunications over the past two decades. Amazingly, he points out, the aviation department still leases all its telephone equipment. In 1982, when telephones were repaired when they broke down, that may have been wise. But today telephones are virtually disposable. "They are so cheaply produced that when a phone goes haywire, you just throw it away," he says. "It doesn't make sense to lease a disposable item."

It gets worse, Arnold notes: "We lease wires. Under this contract we lease the wires in the wall because under the contract we can't buy the wire from WILTEL; we have to lease it from them. All the wires belong to WILTEL. That sounds kind of silly, doesn't it?"

So the county is now in the awkward position of having to negotiate with WILTEL for the purchase of its leased telecommunications equipment or run the risk of WILTEL ripping out all the wires, not just for the telephones, but for the airport's computer and public address systems, which are also part of the 1982 contract.

Two years ago, when aviation officials wanted to install a voice message in the airport's garage elevators that would remind passengers in four languages where they parked their car, they simply added the project to the WILTEL contract. "Rather than going through the process of writing a new request for proposals, putting it out on the street, and getting the best deal possible from a new vendor," Arnold explains, "they just went with WILTEL."

During the past two years, the county has paid more than $330,000 to lease the talking-elevator system. Despite the large sum, the county still isn't getting its money's worth. Earlier this year the Sun-Sentinel reported that WILTEL failed to install all the sensors for the chatty elevators but billed the county $48,375 for the equipment anyway.

Arnold says he remains attentive to the real problem: blindly renewing an outdated contract. "Why did this occur?" he asks rhetorically. "There are a lot of reasons." Detectives with Miami-Dade's public-corruption unit have been investigating the contract for months to determine if anyone at the county received illicit payments or enticements to keep renewing it. In addition to that criminal probe, the contract is being audited; a report is due in the next few weeks.

But Arnold warns there may be a simpler explanation for the constant renewals. "It could just be that renewing the contract was easy, it was simple, it was a lazy way to do it," he says. "If the contract was being handled by procurement professionals rather than being assigned to an operating person as an additional duty, I think we would have had a very different perspective on it."

The county is stuck with the WILTEL contract until February 2002. Arnold has already recommended drawing up a new request for proposals and soliciting competitive bids. "WILTEL may win it again," he acknowledges, "but they will win it under new terms."

No department in county government is facing as much scrutiny these days as the aviation department. FBI agents and Miami-Dade detectives continue to comb through contracts; every week new rumors circulate about a different commissioner on the verge of being indicted. The Miami Herald has had a team of reporters camped out at the airport for more than seven months trying to prove graft and corruption. I wish them luck. I've been writing airport stories for more than six years, analyzing everything from the duty-free contract to the decision to purchase $8200 toilet seats, and I've never been able to prove that kickbacks were involved. The closest I've come is to reveal the relationships between companies that win contracts and the commissioners or staffers who select them. Often the conduit for that relationship is a lobbyist.

Arnold discovered another problem: interference by commissioners in the daily operations of the airport. "When you have either the commission as a whole or individual commissioners getting involved in actual low-level operating decisions in an organization, then it starts getting problematic, and that's what causes the work-force headaches," he says. "That is a serious problem in all of county government. That is something the county manager is trying to deal with."

The county charter bars commissioners from interfering with the daily operations of any county department, but Arnold argues that the charter is difficult to enforce. At what point does a commissioner cross the line from setting policy, which they are allowed to do, to interfering, which they are prohibited from doing? "Where is that line?" he asks. "It seems that line continues to become grayer."

Currently, he says, airport officials are struggling with awarding $18 million in janitorial contracts. The professional staff has divided the airport into zones, with different companies responsible for keeping their section of the airport tidy. "But there aren't enough zones to spread the work out to as many different companies as commissioners want to spread it out to," he says, "so the contract has been delayed and delayed."

Are the commissioners who want the number of zones increased doing so because they think it's in the airport's best interest, or are they trying to steer a janitorial contract to a friend who might otherwise be excluded? Are their motivations pure or sinister? How do you prove that?

Arnold also recalls the fight to bring baggage carts to the airport. "The political maneuvering over how that would come about delayed those carts from being introduced for three or four years, and that cost the county money," he says.

This past week a new and potentially volatile issue surfaced. The airport's staff has concluded that MIA's massive expansion program should be scaled back. Owing to a reduction in the projected number of passengers moving through MIA, as well as a new set of business alliances formed among various airlines, the airport's staff has come to believe that the construction program planned for the western curve of the airport terminal will not be necessary for at least fifteen to twenty years.

In a briefing at the airport, the aviation department director told a group of commissioners that the "D-E-F wrap" and the extension of Concourse E should be put on hold and that some of the money planned for that work should be used instead to improve the south side of the terminal, which has experienced increased traffic. These moves would save the airport more than $400 million in unnecessary construction, the aviation director told commissioners. In addition the scaled-back construction plan has been endorsed by the airlines operating at MIA that pay most of the airport's expenses through landing and gate fees.

"The professional aviation opinion, from the consultants and the aviation technical people, is that there is no rational reason to do this expansion now," Arnold says. "Mark my words, we'll end up doing something with the D-E-F wrap and the E extension. Political decisions will be made."

The lead architect for the original expansion plans is Ron Frazier, who could lose a substantial amount of money if the project is scuttled. Frazier, who heads one of the largest black-owned architectural firms in the state, is close to the county's four black commissioners: Dennis Moss, Betty Ferguson, Barbara Carey-Shuler, and Dorrin Rolle. During last week's briefing, according to sources who were there, Frazier could be heard hooting and cheering on Commissioners Moss and Carey-Shuler as they raised concerns about the staff's recommendation. The commission will vote on a revised construction program at the end of June.

The problem of politicians interfering at the airport began in the late Eighties with the election of Joe Gersten. Prior to Gersten, county commissioners allowed then-aviation director Dick Judy to run the airport in any way he saw fit. In a series of bold moves (supported by the Miami Herald), Gersten forced out the autocratic Judy and had him replaced with someone he thought he could control. Gersten used his position on the commission subcommittee overseeing the airport to wield even more influence in airport matters. He was the first commissioner to recognize the political value of the airport. Companies looking to win lucrative airport contracts would now have to pay homage to Gersten, which at the very least meant filling his campaign coffers with contributions.

Today it is Commissioner Natacha Seijas Millan who has developed a reputation for meddling. "I have not had any specific incidents with her in the time I've been here," says Arnold. "I do know that she carries a lot of weight around the airport, mostly from the fact that she was on that [aviation] committee. She showed an interest in airport operations, plus there are quite a few people who are connected to her. There are several individuals in the aviation department who were placed here by her, which is another issue. I call them 'PPs,' political placements."

(Arnold has his own history with Millan. Approximately fifteen years ago, while he served as president of the Dade County Mental Health Association, Arnold fired Millan, who at the time was working on the association's staff. The organization was suffering cash-flow problems and needed to lay off several people. The board of directors decided that the program Millan was supervising was expendable, and dismissed her. A decade later Millan was elected to the commission. Arnold says he has heard from several people that Millan took the firing as a personal affront. He insists it was never personal.)

Arnold says it is common for commissioners to help people find jobs with the county government. "I don't think it is bad, necessarily," he allows, adding that politicians shouldn't abuse the practice. "This place," Arnold says, referring to the airport, "has a higher ratio of political placements than any department I've ever seen. There are a large number of people who were dropped on this department."

Some are up to the job and others aren't, he says. Commissioner Javier Souto's son, for instance, has a security position at the airport. "He was a political placement," Arnold points out, noting that the commissioner called then-County Manager Armando Vidal to get his son the job. Nonetheless, Arnold says, Souto's son is working out fine and has a promising future with the department. "He is really sharp," Arnold says. "I can think of others who were political placements who are not necessarily all that sharp. And there are certainly others who were promoted in the organization who may or may not fit in where they ended up." (Although Arnold won't identify those people by name, I'd guess that one possibility is Commissioner Miriam Alonso's son-in-law, who was given a $70,000-per-year job in the airport's marketing department.) Political placements, Arnold adds, take a toll on staff morale: "The basic work force knows they are PPs and they don't like it."

Arnold's blunt, straight-talking style isn't endearing him with everyone at the aviation department, but he doesn't seem to care. After 28 years with the police department, including a recent stint helping to clean up the county's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, he had planned on retiring this past year. He decided to stay only after County Manager Merrett Stierheim asked him to take on one last assignment at the airport. He has committed to staying two years, but he's not there to please or placate anyone, which in effect makes him untouchable.

Despite the trouble he sees, Arnold claims to be optimistic. The problems at the aviation department were created over a long period, and they are not going to be repaired instantly. "The work force here is very competent and capable," he says. "They are professionals, and if they would just be left alone to do their work, things will turn out fine."

And at that point Arnold will finally be able to ride off into the sunset.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede