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MIA: Culture of greed alleged

The checks came by FedEx, delivered directly to his front door. The money was good - $50,000, $25,000, $10,000 a pop.

They were bribes, the feds say, and they allegedly fattened the bank account of the man in charge of one of America's largest public works projects, the $5 billion expansion of Miami International Airport.

Ricardo "Richard" Mendez, MIA's one-time point man for construction, goes on trial next month on charges that he sold his public perch to line his pockets. His wife, Mirta, will stand trial, too, accused of helping him collect the money.

The trial promises to expose not only one couple's alleged crimes but also a culture of profiteering that has tainted the airport.

Mendez, 50, was hired in 1995 to help turn MIA from a cluttered, claustrophobic mess into a first-class hub for travel. But Mendez, the assistant director of facilities development, retired suddenly in early 1999 as investigators chased tips that he doled out contracts for cash.

In all, court papers detail about $300,000 that went from airport bidders to the Mendezes. Some came in the mail, some in cash, some in checks passed through a relative, the papers say.

"At its core, this is a case where the crimes were motivated by greed, " Barry Sabin, then the first assistant U.S. attorney for South Florida, said after the August 2001 indictment. "Miami International Airport is too important to this community to be tarnished by those who are driven by greed."

The alleged bribes at the heart of the case involve two contracts that were the subject of Herald investigative reports since 1999. Both times, politically connected insiders were handed no-bid work with help from Mendez. Both times, the work was of questionable merit to the traveling public, The Herald found.

34 COUNTS

Mendez faces 34 counts of mail fraud, bribery, money laundering and tax crimes, a case that could land him in prison for years. His wife, accused as an "aider and abettor" for some of his actions, faces 23 counts and also the prospect of prison.

The Mendezes deny the charges. Their lawyers say they will fight the case, set for trial as early as the week of Jan. 13 in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Adalberto Jordan.

"They've pled not guilty, " said Bob Josefsberg, one of the couple's attorneys. "What they say, they'll say in court."

Court papers filed by federal prosecutors Thomas J. Mulvihill and Anita J. Gay indicate that the couple are facing an uphill battle.

The government has compiled stacks of evidence, gathered by agents from the FBI and IRS and detectives with the Miami-Dade police public corruption unit.

Some evidence will likely come in testimony from two contractors who have already pleaded guilty to paying bribes to Mendez. Other evidence will come through a paper trail of bank deposits and transactions.

The government says it has audio and video recordings of Richard Mendez, and has examined loans to him and his wife. Also examined: Mendez credit-card accounts, including one at Lord & Taylor and another at Mayor's Fine Jewelers.

Mendez is the highest-ranking official charged to date in an ongoing probe of how publicly run MIA does business.

Specifically, court papers assert:

* Mendez was paid $145,000 in 1997 and 1998 by Engineering & Construction Services Inc., a Florida firm headed by Marilyn J. Parker, a major donor to Democratic campaigns who once flew on President Clinton's Air Force One.

Mendez is accused of pocketing this cash in exchange for awarding more than $1.5 million in no-bid work for ECS to create 3-D computer simulations depicting how the airport's expansion would look. The $145,000 was sent to the couple's home via FedEx in the name of Mirta Mendez, 46, ostensibly for legitimate purposes. But it was a bribe, the indictment contends.

Parker's company had already done some airport work before Mendez arrived, but the amount of her business escalated once he took office.

"After he took over as airport construction chief, Mendez began requesting personal payments from Ms. Parker, " her lawyers wrote last year.

She has already admitted the fix: She plied Mendez with cash and gifts, and her company got contracts. Beyond the checks, sources say Parker feted the Mendezes with fancy dinners and bought a computer for one of their children.

ECS got its Mendez-approved work even though some airport staffers and architects said in interviews that they had little use for the equipment. Parker later pleaded guilty not to bribery, but, as part of a plea deal, to a lesser charge of knowing that bribes were taking place but not reporting them. Cooperating with prosecutors, she is serving three years' probation and is among witnesses likely to be called at the trial.

As part of her punishment, Parker must also pay $145,000 in restitution to the county - every penny that she admitted was a bribe.

* Mendez allegedly was paid another $153,788 in kickbacks from 1996 to 1998 for his role in awarding a highly questionable anti-pollution contract to remove contaminated soil from the airport.

Court papers say $81,500 of this came from Edwin Perkinson, a South Florida businessman representing contractors who were handed the work. Perkinson had known Mendez for years and talked with him about the soil job. Money, authorities say, made it happen.

"Perkinson knowingly and corruptly made kickbacks and bribe payments to Richard Mendez . . . for his assistance in securing the soil remediation contracts, " Mulvihill, chief of the U.S. attorney's criminal division, said in court last year.

Perkinson has pleaded guilty to nine charges of bribing Mendez. Serving a year in prison at the Pensacola Work Camp, he is cooperating with authorities. He, too, was ordered to pay restitution for his bribes.

He will likely testify about five checks made out to "cash" totaling $30,500 that authorities say went to Mendez. The other $51,000 cash he has already admitted paying Mendez is not part of the indictment, making the total amount of bribes detailed in the pending case just under $250,000, while the total documented in court papers is about $300,000.

* Mendez allegedly got another $72,288 from the dirt deal from Pios & Sons Enterprises, the soil-cleaning subcontractor. The checks passed through a relative before landing in the Mendez couple's hands, prosecutors say.

The Herald reported in 2000 that company founder Hector Pio Ortiz was brought into the deal thanks to longtime family friend Richard Mendez, even though his firm had no prior experience in cleaning contaminated soil. Mendez's father-in-law worked for another Ortiz company at the time. Investigators have scrutinized bank records of Pios & Sons and another Ortiz business.

Ortiz has not been charged. The Hialeah businessman said he won his contracts on merit, not connections. "He hasn't done anything wrong, " said his lawyer, David Garvin. "That's why he wasn't charged. That's why he won't be charged."

Beyond the bribe charges, the case lays open an airport culture that gave supervisors such as Mendez wide discretion to award no-bid contracts. Mendez's boss at the time, former Aviation Director Gary Dellapa, acknowledged that he didn't exercise strict oversight of his top assistants. And airport deals became political pork for favored vendors.

A 1999 Herald series, Political Baggage: Why MIA Doesn't Work, told how some county politicians enriched friends and campaign supporters with contracts that did little to make the airport a better destination for travelers.

CONTROLS TIGHTENED

After the series, the airport tightened controls on no-bid contracts. The county hired a respected outsider, Angela Gittens, to take over operations at the airport.

A blue-ribbon commission of civic and business leaders pushed for an independent authority to oversee MIA. And prosecutors widened their probe into the confluence of public money and special interests at the airport.

In the Mendez case, the $300,000 detailed in court papers may be only part of the story.

It's typical for public-corruption prosecutors to seek convictions of lower-level officials, then try to turn them against bigger targets in exchange for less prison time.

After he retired, Mendez dropped hints of how wide open the airport had become. He said he was being made a scapegoat for MIA's ills.

"The airport is a clique and a hornet's nest of employees, consultants, contractors and vendors with each concerned simply with their own respective agenda without regard or concern to the mission of improving MIA, " he wrote in response to a Herald inquiry.

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