Miami-Dade County

Short on cash, Miami-Dade raced to sell four helicopters. That was three years ago.

One of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue’s Bell helicopters.
One of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue’s Bell helicopters. El Nuevo Herald file 2008

In 2014, Miami-Dade’s fire helicopters came to the rescue of the county’s mayor. Specifically, his budget.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez faced a backlash over proposed spending cuts for police and the popular Boot Camp program for young offenders. A bit of the pressure eased after his budget office announced a fiscal lifeline: raising $14 million by selling off four rescue helicopters and then spreading out the replacement costs by leasing new ones.

“We propose re-instituting the boot camp,” Jennifer Moon, Gimenez’s budget chief, told county commissioners on Sept. 16, 2014 in announcing a revised spending plan for the 2015. “We have revenue from the sale of helicopters available...”

Boot camp stayed open, but the helicopters deserve none of the credit. Three years later, Miami-Dade still hasn’t sold the four choppers, and the drawn-out bidding process to lease new ones has spawned both an ethics inquiry and a criminal probe, according to a recent court filing.

This was $14 million that was supposedly plugging a hole, that apparently wasn’t so much of a hole.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez

Last September, Bell Helicopter accused rival Augusta Westland of improper contact with the county’s selection committee as both firms vied for the Miami-Dade chopper contract. A Bell lobbyist filed an ethics complaint against Christopher Sirkis, an Augusta sales executive, and the case prompted a wider investigation by county prosecutors.

“Respondent Sirkis and other individuals are currently the subjects of an active criminal investigation by the Office of the State Attorney arising from the facts as alleged in this complaint,” read a Feb. 27 filing by Michael Murawski, an Ethics Commission lawyer .

No details of the allegations were included in Murawski’s confidential motion obtained by the Miami Herald, and the Ethics Commission’s files remain closed during investigations. Sirkis declined to comment, as did representatives of the state attorney and Ethics Commission.

But other county records shed light on the convoluted procurement tale within Miami-Dade, a $7 billion government where purchasing decisions underpin a corps of well-paid lobbyists seeking to win contracts for their clients.

For example, multiple lobbyists had been fighting since 2012 over which outfit could give kite-boarding lessons at Crandon Park. County commissioners finally awarded the contract in January. Even efforts to improve the system can drag on for years: Gimenez announced a task force on procurement reform in 2014, but it has yet to meet.

Regularly, capital projects do not happen as quickly as we budget. So we haven’t had to spend the helicopter-sale revenue yet.

Miami-Dade budget director Jennifer Moon

Compared to most government deals, the planned helicopter swap of 2014 appeared to have all the makings for bureaucratic urgency. Facing a $200 million budget gap, Gimenez’s administration relied on $14 million in helicopter-sale revenue to explain how it planned to make up some high-profile shortfalls. For insiders, the helicopter proceeds became something of a running joke, since the sale was first linked to plugging a $3 million budget gap that June but was contributing far more relief by the time Gimenez submitted his final budget in the fall.

“The proceeds of the sale of the Air Rescue Helicopters will net approximately $14 million,” Gimenez wrote in a Sept. 18, 2014, memo to commissioners. Gimenez said the money would pay for police positions that otherwise faced cuts, boost lawn-mowing at county parks and roadsides, and contribute $4 million to “restore Boot Camp for one more year.”

While the pending sale of the helicopters was widely reported in 2014, the lack of a transaction went unnoticed. The failed effort to sell in 2015 meant another budget patch in 2016. Gimenez’s 2016 budget included about $10 million from the hoped-for sale, as the county decided it might get less money for the vehicles. With a deal still out of reach, the helicopter cash dropped out of the 2017 budget year that began last October.

News that helicopters never sold surprised Commissioner Xavier Suarez, a frequent critic of Gimenez’s spending plans.

“It was never done? That’s weird,” said Suarez, who pressed the Gimenez administration for an extra $10 million for affordable housing this year but ended up with less than $400,000. “This was $14 million that was supposedly plugging a hole, that apparently wasn’t so much of a hole.”

Moon, the county’s budget chief, said the 2015 budget put the expected helicopter money into a $53 million pool that pays for construction and equipment throughout the year. That freed up property taxes to flow to Boot Camp and beyond. But Moon said construction projects were delayed long enough that the spending shortfalls the choppers were supposed to fix never actually materialized.

“Regularly, capital projects do not happen as quickly as we budget,” Moon said. “So we haven’t had to spend the helicopter-sale revenue yet.”

Back in 2014, the county’s purchasing arm, Internal Services, opted to fast-track the helicopter deal, citing the need for the cash in the next year’s budget. Instead of advertising for bids, the county contacted helicopter makers directly.

Three companies responded with bids: Bell, a Texas company that sold Miami-Dade the original four helicopters more than a decade ago; France’s Airbus; and Philadelphia-based Augusta Westland. In early 2015, Gimenez approved a selection committee that included Internal Services chief negotiator Andrew Zawoyski, rescue-squad captain Antonio Hernandez and county pilot Rick Guthery.

The committee opted not to consider Augusta Westland’s proposal, saying the company’s four-ton AW139 chopper was too heavy for some rooftop helipads in Miami-Dade. That left a choice between two bidders.

Multiple lobbyists had been fighting since 2012 over which outfit could give kite-boarding lessons at Crandon Park, and county commissioners finally awarded the contract in January. Even efforts to improve the system can drag on for years: Gimenez announced a task force on procurement reform in 2014, but it has yet to meet.

Airbus offered to pay $24 million for the existing helicopters, then lease replacements for a total cost of between $55 million and $72 million, depending on the model. Bell wanted to buy the four choppers for $22 million, and lease new ones for a cost of about $60 million. The company hired Floridian Partners, a Coral Gables lobbying firm, on a $10,000-a-month contract, according to a copy of the agreement. The selection committee opted for Bell’s 412EPI helicopter, citing its roomier cabin, “which is vital to [Miami-Dade Fire Rescue] in a Mass Casualty incident.”

Eventually, a different message came down from the top. With just two months remaining in the 2015 budget year, Zawoyski’s boss, Internal Services director Tara Smith, called for a slowdown in the push to close a deal with Bell in order revisit Airbus’s proposal. “While you continue negotiations with Bell,” Smith wrote in the Aug 14, 2015 memo, “in order to make a best value determination and ultimately an award recommendation, we will need to know if there are other acceptable options for the County.”

Four months later, Zawoyski wrote Smith to once again reject Airbus as a possibility, saying the company’s proposed chopper was, among other things, too cramped. With two patients aboard, a medic can’t “perform proper chest compression without [getting] in the way of another medic attending to the second patient,” Zawoyski wrote in the Dec. 22, 2015 memo.

While Airbus couldn’t revive its hope for a Miami-Dade contract, Augusta was able to find some traction with county officials. In a Jan. 25, 2016 email to the selection committee members, Sirkis, the regional sales manager for Augusta Westland, raised concerns about anti-fire safeguards in the Bell helicopter. He asked if Miami-Dade “could just in some way amend (reissue, modify or delay) the timing of the helicopter acquisition process...”

Zawoyski wrote back that the county’s “cone of silence” law limits the amount of contact he can have with bidders on a contract. Two days later, another Sirkis email to some committee members summarized a meeting with Zawoyski in which they discussed the long-gone budget hole the helicopters were supposed to patch.

“We agreed that the helicopter procurement ... has long exceeded its original deadline,” Sirkis wrote, “so while infusing Dade County with cash from the sale of its current B412s is important, it’s no longer an emergency.”

When Bell lobbyists saw some of the email correspondence through public-record requests, they demanded Miami-Dade turn over phone logs and personal cellular bills for the county employees on the selection team. When the county didn’t, Bell sued, citing “clandestine discussions” with its competitor.

The lawsuit in Miami-Dade Circuit Court noted Sirkis wrote Guthery on the pilot’s personal email account. Guthery, who earned about $140,000 last year as a county pilot, runs a private helicopter business that seemed to place him in the role of an occasional sales consultant. “We help people purchase helicopters. Go out and find the right helicopter for their mission,” he said in a 2013 promotional video. Guthery did not respond to requests for interviews left at his helicopter business and on his voice mail at the fire department.

Miami-Dade eventually turned over private cellphone records for Guthery, Hernandez, the helicopter squad’s captain, and other selection-committee members. They showed multiple text messages and phone calls from Sirkis’ cellphone throughout 2016. That included an eight-minute call from Sirkis to Guthery on Jan. 20, 2016, two days before Zawoyski raised the fire-safety issue with Bell.

While the county turned over some phone records, Miami-Dade lawyers are fighting other Bell demands, including a request to AT&T for access to Guthery’s BellSouth email account. “The subpoena is merely a fishing expedition,” assistant county attorney Brenda Kuhns Neuman wrote, “and should be quashed.” A hearing on the matter is set for March 31.