Miami-Dade politicians and lobbyists regularly asked the company managing Miami International Airport's massive expansion to contribute to a raft of political campaigns and pet charities, funneling money to causes of little or no benefit to the airport and its passengers. For $15 million a year, Dade Aviation Consultants is supposed to help transform county-owned MIA from crowded and dim disarray into a spacious showpiece, with wide passenger concourses and new brand-name retail shops.
But its own records show that the company serves an additional purpose: feeding Miami-Dade's political machine, primarily at the request of politicians, including Mayor Alex Penelas, and airport bosses charged with overseeing the company's work. The Herald obtained access to DAC's checkbook after a two-year public records lawsuit. The newspaper argued that the company's revenue - which comes primarily from landing fees paid by airlines - is public money and that taxpayers are entitled to know how it's spent. Judges agreed, saying the company had been "stonewalling" the newspaper's request for its lobby fees and expense records, and they forced it to disclose just how it spends the money it gets from MIA. Those records, about 25,000 pages of expense reports, show how business and politics intertwine at MIA and how one contract supplies a rich vein of support for both. Taken with dozens of interviews and hundreds of other documents, they bring to light a normally hidden circle of political influence: Lobbyists get paid millions to help the construction-management company stay in favor at County Hall. They raise funds for politicians, who also tap cash from the company's revenues. Airport bureaucrats overseeing DAC's contract snag free sports luncheons, rounds of golf and even consulting work. And in the end, when the firm comes under fire by county auditors who say it is costing too much, the decision on whether to make changes falls to those very same airport and elected officials, who opt to do nothing. "This is not the way for the county to be doing business, " said Gerald Kogan, former chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court and former president of the Alliance for Ethical Government in Miami. "As a politician, you should not be going to the people who do business with the county and ask them to make donations." In all, DAC spent $3.4 million for everything from political dinners and charity events to 1997 World Series tickets. DETAILS OF SPENDING $1.7 million goes to lobbyists in bid to gain political favor The records show: * The firm has spent $1.7 million for lobbyists to curry political favor at County Hall and protect its power and profits. The company, faced with a competitive threat in 1999, amassed a lobbying squad of seven men. Each has deep ties to Miami-Dade's most powerful politicians and played a role in pushing them into office. Each team member was paid well - nearly $25,000 every month in all - to padlock DAC's position as one of the highest-paid airport consultants in America. * Penelas, who as a commissioner in 1992 made the motion to give the airport contract to DAC, has asked the company for money more than any other politician. As a rising star in Democratic circles, he got the airport consultant to contribute $50,000 to Democratic National Committee events for Bill Clinton and Al Gore. He also got $20,000 for his failed 1999 "Transit Not Tolls" campaign. Altogether, $133,500 went from the company to causes connected to the mayor, including thousands for Penelas' charity golf tournaments and United Way balls. * Prodded by other politicians, DAC gave money for a wide array of causes that had little or no bearing on the airport. At the request of Pedro Reboredo, once chairman of the County Commission's aviation committee, it paid $2,500 to a 1996 fundraiser for Nicaraguan presidential candidate Arnoldo Alemán, with whom Reboredo had business ties. DAC also gave $1,000 to the James E. Scott Community Association Inc., noting that "Commissioner Dorrin Rolle is the President and CEO." * The consulting firm plied airport officials with perks, from golf outings to contributions to their favored causes. For Richard Mendez, the construction chief who approved every dollar DAC made during his tenure: $2,000 to the Lynn University baseball program, where his son was a star pitcher; four $100 tickets to attend a Florida International University basketball fundraiser; tickets to luncheons with the Miami Dolphins and Florida Panthers; and two years of consulting employment with one of DAC's joint-venture partners after he resigned from the airport. For airport telecommunications boss James Nabors: 18 freebie golf outings in 1997 and 1998. Both men refused to comment. Both have since been indicted in connection with their work at the airport. Mendez is charged with pocketing a quarter of a million dollars in bribes from contractors whom he prodded DAC and airport staffers to hire. Nabors pleaded guilty and served eight months in jail for taking meals, sports tickets, golf trips and other freebies from another contractor. DAC has been accused of no wrongdoing. * When one of DAC's most vocal critics staged protests, accusing the company of eating up too much airport money in the mid-1990s, DAC lawyers met with him and wrote a letter saying his group was risking a lawsuit. Two years later, they hired him. The critic, Roman Lannes, then an environmental consultant and point man for the Latin Builders Association, got $120,000 for "public affairs advice and services." DAC would not comment regarding his employment.