The Airport's Flush Fund

Thirteen years ago, when it was revealed that the Pentagon had spent $640 on a toilet seat and $435 for a hammer, the public was outraged. Congress immediately launched an investigation, hearings were held on Capitol Hill, and red-faced military leaders stood by helplessly as their careers came to an ignominious end. At the time, there was a joke making the rounds through Washington's cocktail party circuit: What do you call someone who spends $640 on a toilet seat? Answer: General.

Here in Dade County, that joke is being updated. What do you call someone who spends $8219 on a toilet seat?

Answer: Commissioner.
The Dade County Commission is currently spending more than $5.1 million to equip the restrooms at Miami International Airport with a new type of toilet seat. Each of the airport's 625 commodes will soon feature a high-tech, state-of-the-art, electrically powered gizmo, which at the push of a button will automatically slip a clear plastic sleeve around the seat. Designed by a team of Swiss engineers, these quixotic crappers are called Hygolets and are designed to guard the user against germs and bacteria. The company awarded the contract to provide these mechanical thrones is Bella Bagno, based in Skokie, Illinois.

When the pact expires in August 1999, the company has the right to yank every one of the toilet seats out of the airport if the county doesn't renew its agreement. Bella Bagno was awarded this sweetheart deal without going through any sort of competitive bidding process.

Guiding Bella Bagno through the county bureaucracy like a plumber's snake through a clogged john was their local lobbyist Sergio Pereira, the former county manager. "They came to me maybe a year and a half ago," says Pereira. "I introduced them to [aviation director] Gary Dellapa over at the airport. They made a presentation to Gary, and Gary took it from there. I also took them to see [County Commissioner] Natacha Millan, because she is always interested in learning about women-owned businesses."

Bella Bagno is owned by Cynthia Lazarus, who along with her husband Erwin has been the subject of several stories in the Chicago Tribune. Under scrutiny were their close ties to Windy City politicians and allegations that their political clout helped them land a no-bid contract in 1993 to provide Hygolets for O'Hare International Airport. Neither Cynthia nor Erwin Lazarus was available for comment last week. An assistant to the couple said they were traveling and could not be reached.

Though the Lazaruses' business experience in South Florida is relatively modest, with Pereira's help it has certainly been fruitful. "We had a very brief meeting with Millan," Pereira says, "maybe fifteen minutes." Millan, who is now chairwoman of the committee that oversees the airport, was the only commissioner Lazarus visited, according to Pereira (who refused to disclose his lobbying fee).

After being awarded the contract in November 1995, Bella Bagno began installing the toilet seats at Miami International Airport last August, but to date only 350 of them are ready to accept visitors. The rest will be installed in the coming months, according to John Hamill, manager of the aviation department's facilities maintenance division.

Under Bella Bagno's agreement with Dade County, the $5.1 million will be used to cover the following expenses:

*$257,000 for the actual toilet seats, even though in its original proposal to the county Bella Bagno claimed that it would provide the seats "at no charge"

*$47,000 to install the seats
*$40,000 for the electrical transformers to help power the motors that slide the plastic sleeves around the seats

*$575,000 to provide a warranty on the seats so that if they break they can be replaced

*$695,000 to cover administrative expenses
*$2,040,000 for a three-year supply of plastic sleeves
*$1,483,000 for a maintenance crew that will reload fresh rolls of plastic

The subcontractor providing this last service for Bella Bagno is South Florida Maintenance Services, Inc., owned by Jose Infante, Jr., a contributor to Millan's most recent political campaign and a long-time friend of Pereira. "I introduced Bella Bagno to Jose," Pereira confirms. "I happened to know that they needed a maintenance company as part of this contract, so I brought the two of them together." In addition to his lobbying fee from Bella Bagno, Pereira acknowledges he also received a commission from Infante for bringing him into the deal, but he won't say how much. "I got something from Jose," he says.

While Lazarus, Infante, and Pereira all appear to be sitting pretty from this deal, the real question, which nobody seems to have bothered asking, is whether Miami International Airport truly needed an $8219 toilet seat.

When the idea of contracting with Bella Bagno was first raised there were detractors. For instance, on January 31, 1995, Dan Rishavy, an official with CBM Industries -- the company that provides general janitorial services at the airport -- complained in a memo to airport officials that the idea made little economic sense. Rishavy noted that one of the often-cited advantages of Hygolet is that it will save money on toilet paper, since people will no longer try to fashion seat covers from rolls of tissue. Rishavy, however, dismissed this supposed benefit and noted: "The annual cost of toilet paper at Miami International Airport is approximately $117,000; thus any portion of this amount saved due to Hygolet installation is not significant."

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede