|By Charles Rabin, The Miami
HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Feb. 23, 2013--A lengthy investigation into alleged overbilling by the group that runs the Miami International Airport Hotel caught a big break this week, when the hotel's chief engineer and maintenance supervisor turned himself in to law enforcement and promised to cooperate with authorities.
Nestor Aznar, 61, an employee of MIA hotel operator H.I. Development Corp., showed up at the state attorney's office Thursday afternoon, and pleaded guilty to a single count of organized scheme to defraud.
The state attorney and Miami-Dade's Office of Inspector General claim that Aznar -- and possibly others -- ran up bills with false overcharges and were later reimbursed for those amounts from the county.
"This is an ongoing probe," said Miami-Dade Inspector General Christopher Mazzella.
Aznar, reached at his Cooper City home Friday afternoon, directed calls to his attorney, Ayuban Antonio Tomas. Tomas confirmed the charge and that his client had agreed to work with prosecutors, but wouldn't comment further.
Law enforcement officials believe there are more arrests to come, and say the scheme used to steal at least $500,000 of county money was relatively simple.
According to the state attorney's office and the OIG, workers with H.I. Development, which has operated the hotel since 1989, would bill the county when work was completed, then the county would reimburse the money. The hotel has recently undergone an extensive renovation.
Aznar is alleged to have overbilled the county for items that include wallpaper, tiles, and carpeting by as much as $500,000 over the past year. None of his co-workers -- four who were removed from the airport and relieved of duty last year -- have been charged with any criminal wrongdoing.
Airport Director Jose Abreu said about a year ago his staff noticed "irregularities" in billing, so he turned the bills over the airport's chief financial officer. When the CFO couldn't figure out exactly what was going on, the information was passed along to law enforcement.
The county's inspector general said investigators later determined "there was some false invoicing of supplies purchased."
Mazzella said under the plea agreement Aznar will cooperate with investigators, and that any agreed-upon sentence will be delayed until the case is closed. Aznar also agreed to pay restitution to the airport and cover the cost of the OIG investigation, Mazzella said.
The investigation came to light in early January when Mazzella told Abreu in a public memo that he couldn't go into detail about the investigation. The unusual memo was prompted by an earlier letter from H.I. Development defending the company from Abreu's criticism.
In that letter, H.I. Development President Andre P. Callen defended the employees Abreu and staffers had let go, saying none have been charged with any wrongdoing. The letter also made reference to what airport officials thought were questionable bills on bathtub and bathroom mirror projects, calling them "fully completed and properly billed."
The county is now considering new bids from operators to manage the hotel. Before the process began, Abreu said he preferred bypassing the bidding process in case H.I. Development once again entered the contest. County commissioners and administrators chose to open the bidding process.
"Right now it's up for bid," Abreu said. "And H.I. could be one of the bidders."
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