In the years it has taken Sergio Pino to amass an empire, he also has run into a few problems, not the least of which is his concessions business at Miami International Airport.
Now, after a decade at the airport, Pino has chosen to pull out of concessions, marking a major milestone in his career. As of Dec. 31, Century Duty Free's contract with MIA will expire and a new company will take over, he said.
''The airport was guilt by association,'' Pino said in a rare interview recently. ``I never did anything wrong.''
The end of his airport business couldn't come soon enough for Pino, who has been busy the last few years focusing on community philanthropy, brokering political power and running a home building business.
Pino points out that he has never been charged with a crime.
And a review of records indicates he has never been a defendant or the subject of any county investigations that have since closed, Ed Griffith, a spokesman for the Miami-Dade state attorney's office, said.
Nevertheless, the specter of controversy has hovered over Pino for years as he accrued clout by becoming one of South Florida's most influential political fundraisers. He has spent tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions for local, state and federal candidates.
Pino said he is not trying to improve his public image in the wake of the MIA probe but merely going back to his roots and restoring his strengths.
Jose Cancela, whose friendship with Pino has stretched 15 years, and who serves as a board member in Pino's home building business, said his friend, at 49, is reaching a point in his life when he is thinking about his legacy.
''He wants to make sure people know the real Sergio,'' Cancela said. ``Is he a good businessman? Yes. Can he cut your throat in business? Yes. But he has a good heart.''
Pino deftly mixes money, politics and philanthropy.
This year, Pino made the biggest donation -- $2 million -- Florida International University has ever received from a Hispanic donor. He spearheaded the political campaign to torpedo slot machines in Miami-Dade County, and he donated his Le Jeune building in 2004 to headquarter President Bush's re-election campaign in Miami.
In a few months, he plans to break ground on what will become Miami's biggest residential housing development in Doral, a city in western Miami-Dade.
Pino's profits at the airport -- on sales of about half a billion dollars over the last decade -- were small compared to his home building business, he said.
''There's nothing wrong with making money,'' Pino said. ``If I had made $40 million [at MIA], I'd be very proud of it . . . but [the airport] is too bureaucratic. Every time you want to do something, you have to hire lobbyists. It's a complicated business. It's not what I do best.''
In 2002, the current duty-free joint venture minority partners at the airport came under fire in a report by the Miami-Dade County inspector general for earning more than $14.6 million for their cut of a hefty airport contract despite having performed no actual work.
Pino said he had a ''disagreement'' with the inspector general and denies wrongdoing. He said he settled the dispute by hiring a full-time construction manager.
''Normal people out there think that everything at the airport is corrupt, and that's not the case. I think a few bad apples at the airport made everybody look bad,'' Pino said.
Pino's friend and business associate Rodney Barreto, whose own lobbying firm also faced state and federal investigations at the airport, maintains neither man ever was involved in anything illegal.
''Sometimes when you deal with politics, it gets nasty. You have winners and losers and people don't stop throwing nails at you,'' Barreto said. ``The state and feds . . . looked into it, and nothing is there, case closed.''
Pino, twice married and the father of four, has cultivated his political and business savvy since his days as president of Latin Builders 15 years ago. He started in construction after he and his father bought a plumbing supply business in the late 1970s.
Pino was asked to join FIU's board of directors two years ago, and just a few months ago announced the $2 million endowment for the ''Eugenio Pino and Family Global Entrepreneurship Center'' in honor of his father, a bodega owner in Cuba who turned to odd jobs when he first arrived in Miami to support his family.
Now Pino's planning to start a major fundraising campaign to help FIU land a medical school.
His taste for behind-the-scenes political wrangling has taken a more national scope, making him a sort of Miami gatekeeper in any Republican candidate's journey to the White House. Just last month, Pino met in Miami with Sen. Bill Frist, who is said to be exploring a presidential run. Pino is also a close friend and ally of Gov. Jeb Bush, who Pino views as a strong presidential candidate in 2008. The governor has said repeatedly that he does not plan to run.
Pino's detractors accuse him of hedging his bets on controversial issues. For example, Pino said he donated his building on Le Jeune, the one used for George W. Bush's 2004 re-election campaign, to house the pro-slot machine campaign. Yet he took a public position against slots.
''We were able to persuade him to utilize his property for campaign headquarters,'' said lobbyist Ron Book, who spearheaded the pro-slots campaign, which Miami-Dade voters rejected.
Pino said he never talked to Book about slot machines, and that he didn't know his building was being used by the pro-slots campaign when he donated it to political consultant Al Lorenzo.
Lorenzo, who was working with the pro-slots campaign, said he never paid rent to use the building, only expenses like electricity or water. He said Pino didn't know it was going to be used for slots.
''I think Sergio's financial involvement, coupled with the governor's popularity, made the difference in the slots campaign,'' Book said. ``I think he's got respectable political acumen. Come on, he had the airport concessions. It takes some political involvement to have it as long as he did.''
Pino is keeping his focus on money-making. His company, Century Homebuilders, owns more land within the urban development boundary that limits urban sprawl than any other builder. Miami-Dade commissioners are considering moving the UDB to allow development closer to the Everglades.
''I have a lot of friends who own land there [outside the UDB], and one day I'll be buying land there,'' he said.
Pino is banking on urban infill: the Century Grand development on 465 acres in Doral, where 4,650 housing units are planned. It would be the largest new housing development in Miami-Dade. Across the street, he is building 3,000 more units.
Pino said he is building 15 percent more school space at Century Grand than the law requires, designating several acres for park space, and donating two acres to the Catholic Church.
''Am I trying to change my image? No, I'm not,'' he said. ``I honestly believe I'm the same person.''
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