Concessions Business Pulls Out of Miami Airport

As of Dec. 31, Century Duty Free's contract with MIA will expire and a new company will take over.


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.

CONTROVERSY

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.''

NO WORK

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.

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