Miami commissioners' foreign travels yield big expenses, no contracts

In late July, as Miami-Dade leaders confronted the county's worst budget crisis in decades, Commissioner Natacha Seijas boarded American Airlines Flight 56 for a week-long trip to Ireland.

In September, a day after commissioners voted to lay off more than 500 county workers and cut millions in funding to social service groups, Seijas hopped on a plane for seven days in Brazil. In October, as commissioners imposed steep salary cuts on three unions, Commissioner Audrey Edmonson and her chief of staff embarked on a 12-day journey through Senegal and South Africa.

Taxpayers picked up the tab for commissioners and their county entourages on each trip, which were arranged by the International Trade Consortium, a county agency designed to open global markets for Miami-Dade businesses.

Despite spending more than $217,000 on nine trips since 2007, ITC executive director J.A. "Tony" Ojeda Jr. could not identify a single contract signed as a result of the missions. In fact, the agency stopped keeping such records four years ago after a Miami Herald review found them grossly exaggerating the trips' economic benefit.

To critics, the International Trade Consortium has become a punch line.

"It's sort of a common joke that the ITC is International Travel for Commissioners," said Mario Artecona, executive director of the Miami Business Forum, which represents the region's top business leaders.

The ITC journeys include stops at luxury hotels from Mumbai to Istanbul, extended stays for personal vacations in South Africa and, in one case, the cost of flying a county staffer across the country to help public officials change planes.

Created in 2002 by the County Commission, the ITC's primary aim is to spur trade between greater Miami companies and the world. To do so, the government agency brings Miami businesses on as many as four trade missions a year to destinations ranging from Poland to Japan. The businesses pay their own way, but travel under the county's seal of approval.

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