That's a Wrap

Airplane fear can make a lot of money. Just ask the folks at Secure Wrap of Miami, who raked in $7 million for swathing suitcases in a cellophane-like material that prevents unscrupulous baggage handlers or others from pilfering travelers' belongings. The once tiny company works in dozens of airports around the world.

The firm has wrapped baggage in the subtropics since 2001, when Miami-Dade County awarded it exclusive rights to do business at the airport. That battle was bitterly contested. Before the final vote, Secure Wrap chairman Henry Ramos accused then-Mayor Alex Penelas of trying to steer the deal to one of his campaign supporters. The agreement required Secure Wrap to pay the county a certain percentage of their profits.

But during the first three years of the agreement, Secure Wrap failed to fork over a required $2.5 million despite generating more than $10 million wrapping bags. According to Ramos, Secure Wrap would have made more money had it not been for the Federal Transportation Security Administration. "Security measures after 9/11 almost killed us," he says. "For every bag that TSA tore open, we had to refund our customers." So in 2004, then-Aviation Department director Angela Gittens forgave Secure Wrap's debt. She renegotiated the terms, and then extended the agreement for another five years. The county commission approved those changes. 

Now the contract's up and things are getting interesting again. Secure Wrap has a squad of high-powered lobbyists to protect it from competitors who want in on the action.

The company needs all the help it can get. Last year, rival firm Sinapsis Trading U.S.A. hired former state legislator and Coral Gables lawyer Miguel de Grandy. Ironically, de Grandy — who declined comment — was the lobbyist who succeeded in getting Secure Wrap its original contract.

The county might not even have begun the search had Miami-Dade Inspector General Chris Mazzella not pushed Aviation Director Jose Abreu into action. This past September, after a meeting with de Grandy, Mazzella penned a scathing memo to Abreu urging him to put Secure Wrap's contract out to bid.

Ramos welcomes the competition, but he wishes the county would have waited until TSA enacts national guidelines for the handling of cellophane-wrapped luggage. "If the county bids out the contract, TSA may not let anyone in the back security area to rewrap suitcases," he says. "If that happens, 200 local people will be out of a job."

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.