At MIA, there’s economy, first class and ... politician. Officials’ travel perks under fire.

 
BY DOUGLAS HANKS
 
 

One tip for avoiding clogged security lines at Miami International Airport: Get elected mayor or county commissioner. 

A new report from the Miami-Dade Ethic Commission chastises the county-owned airport for offering elected officials VIP treatment, including golf-cart rides, cutting to the front of security and Customs, and other courtesies normally reserved for foreign dignitaries. 

“In an age when security issues abound at airports, including those related to possible terrorist activities, a policy of routinely offering such unnecessary courtesies that create diversions from necessary security activities is highly questionable,” read the report, titled Protocol Office Escorts of Local Elected Officials Through MIA.

“Moreover,” the report continued, “the image of local public officials being specially escorted through security lines for non-emergency trips, including personal family excursions, while other taxpayers wait patiently in line, is likely to be offensive to the traveling and taxpaying public.” 

Investigators concluded most of the trips by office holders came during official government business. But there are multiple mentions of personal travel too, including trips to visit sick relatives and other unspecified vacations. The airport’s Protocol Office arranged four escorts for Rebeca Sosa, a Miami-Dade commissioner, and three for her sister, Guadalupe Diaz. “These are unexplained,” the report said of the sibling’s VIP transits. 

Sosa said she arranged her sister’s speedy trip through MIA at a time when their mother was facing critical surgery in Miami. “In a moment when the life of a person is in question,” she said, “I would do it for anyone.”

The most documented uses of MIA’s Office of Protocol were by Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado, who requested escorts on 51 occasions since 2010, including several trips with a son, Tomas, and his daughter, Raquel, the former school-board member and county mayoral candidate, according to the Ethics report. “They treat us very well,” Mayor Regalado said. 

The typical trip involves two escorts — one leaving Miami and one returning. 

Regalado said he uses the service only for official city trips and that he wouldn’t object if Miami-Dade eliminated the longstanding perk. “It’s been a tradition in Miami for many years,” he said. 

A close second to Regalado’s protocol use is by Miami-Dade Commissioner Sally Heyman, and during a much shorter time span. Investigators said she received escorts 45 times since the start of 2015. 

“We reach out to them because it’s a long walk and get the protocol wagon,” Heyman said, saying she only requests rides on MIA vehicles and not rights to cut in line. “I pay for my pre-check TSA pass,” she said. 

Of Heyman’s 45 escorts — often one on the departing trip and one on the return — investigators concluded 20 were for “Unexplained or personal travel.” But Heyman disputed that conclusion, saying her active role in national government groups — including a White House task force on law enforcement — have her traveling across the country without seeking the kind of county reimbursements that prompted Ethics to conclude the trips were official. “It’s all county trips,” she said. 

Emilio Gonzalez, MIA’s director, said the elected officials’ VIP escorts are offered only when Protocol staff isn’t busy helping foreign dignitaries. “If we have to say no, we say no,” said González, who regularly faces grilling from county commissioners on contracts sought by campaign contributors. “This is an amenity we offer. If we have the available personnel to help, we help.” 

The Ethics report sheds light on MIA’s extensive efforts to accommodate a tiny fraction of the traveling public deemed too important for regular service.

MIA’s protocol office provides about 5,000 escorts a year, according to airport spokesman Greg Chin. That amounts to roughly 13 per day in an airport that handles about 100,000 passengers every 24 hours. Elected officials received just 324 in the years covered by the report, making them a tiny slice of the Protocol Office’s constituency. 

Chin said the office accommodates only government officials, with much of the demand from traveling dignitaries from Latin America and the Caribbean — regions where Miami serves as the primary international hub. He said the office, created in 1988, plays a crucial role in maintaining Miami-Dade’s status as a gateway to the United States. “Many foreign dignitaries love MIA because of this service,” he said.

He said celebrities aren’t offered escorts from Protocol, or given access to the airport’s special VIP lounge reserved for dignitaries under its charge. Instead, individual airlines arrange whatever special treatment stars receive on their way to and from Miami.

Chin said commissioners and others offered Protocol escorts can be met curbside by the office’s staff, taken to the front of the line for Transportation Security Administration screening and then driven by open-air electric cart to the gate “if a cart is available.” On the way back from an international flight, they’re also granted access to a special Customs line reserved for dignitaries. There’s also a set of ground-level parking spaces directly across from a concourse entrance reserved for VIP travelers served by the office. 

The Feb. 2 report said the investigation got started in late 2015 when someone — MIA brass suspect it was an Ethics Commission staffer — saw a Miami-Dade commissioner whisked to the front of a TSA line. That was reported to Ethics, and the probe began.

Investigators found 11 county commissioners received 241 escorts from early 2014 to the middle of 2016. The two who didn’t take advantage of the service were Dennis Moss and Bruno Barreiro. (Joe Martinez, elected last summer, wasn’t included on the list, but his predecessor in District 11, Juan C. Zapata, was.) Investigators found nine escorts went to commissioners’ relatives, including spouses. 

Of the 36 mayors in Miami-Dade, only three used the service: Regalado, Hialeah’s Carlos Hernandez (26 escorts since 2012) and Miami-Dade’s Carlos Gimenez (12 escorts since 2012). 

Commissioner Xavier Suarez barely made the list, with only one documented escort in the report for one personal trip. 

“Suarez later explained that he had not requested the escort,” investigators wrote, “but rather had it offered to him ad hoc by the Protocol Office, which wanted to brief him on some airport development while he was at the airport.” 

“They took me in one of their carriages and instead of taking me to my gate, they took me all over the airport,” Suarez said Wednesday, saying Gonzalez, the airport’s director, was his tour guide. “They were trying to explain something that was coming up before the commission.” 

A report from the Miami-Dade Ethics Commission investigated the use of Miami International Airport’s Protocol Office by all 36 mayors in Miami-Dade and the 13-member County Commission. The office provides VIP escorts through MIA, and was used by three mayors and 11 commissioners. Investigators also matched up the escorts with officials’ travel records to see if the travel coincided with official business.