Asbestos 101

In which the professor and his wife share the secrets of low bids, high profits, and your money

In spite of that family relationship, or perhaps because of it, Cruz-Mu*oz and his staff have been extremely tough in their dealings with MCO, especially when it comes to billing practices the company commonly uses at the airport.

This past August, for example, MCO was called into an emergency situation at Frances S. Tucker Elementary School, where a construction project had accidentally released asbestos fibers into the air. The contamination had to be cleaned up immediately and left no time to negotiate a contract. MCO stepped in and finished the work in nine days.

The next month Cruz Otazo submitted a detailed bill for the work: $41,013. About $12,000 of that charge was for materials, including more than $7000 for air filters and face masks. Today that page of Otazo's claim is heavily marked with red ink, as are all other pages -- a sign of the school district's displeasure.

A district inspector questioned Otazo's billing for many materials, and noted at the bottom of one ink-red page: "These items were not replaced during the job or are reusable and remain the property of MCO. Filters were not replaced in those amounts shown; some were not replaced at all, or if replaced, will be used by MCO on other jobs." Otazo tried to charge the district for five cases of duct tape at $68 a case; the inspector contended MCO only used one case. Otazo also attempted to bill the district for four cases of spray glue, eleven pails of caulking material, 40 gallons of mastic remover, and eight rolls of disposable asbestos bags. Again the inspector asserted that all of Otazo's claims were inflated and determined that the company only deserved to be compensated for one case of spray glue, two pails of caulking material, fifteen gallons of mastic remover, and two rolls of disposable asbestos bags. By the time the inspector was done with the materials list, the price had been slashed from more than $12,000 to less than $1600.

In addition to materials, Julio Otazo also wanted MCO to be compensated for its equipment. Nearly $7000 of the $41,000 bill was for machinery, including approximately $4000 for eight negative-air-pressure machines. The school district inspector placed a large red X through the entire page and noted: "Equipment owned by the company and reusable on other projects."

Finally, labor charges came to $21,908. Here again the school district uncapped its red pen. Analyzing the time cards for each employee, the inspector discovered several employees whose time was being charged to the Tucker Elementary emergency project but who were actually working other jobs for MCO.

In the end, Otazo's $41,000 bill was cut to $19,576. "They tried to play some games," Cruz-Mu*oz says flatly, "and they hit a wall."

MCO Environmental once again hit a wall this past November when the school district called upon the company for another high-priority asbestos removal, this time at Miami Jackson Senior High, where rain-damaged ceilings required repair. MCO began its share of the work on November 19 and was supposed to finish by December 6. But the company got bogged down from the outset.

The school district inspector assigned to Miami Jackson repeatedly cited MCO for not complying with asbestos-removal procedures. The company stopped and restarted the project a couple of times, yet never completed it. District officials also claimed the company didn't assign enough manpower to do the job in a timely manner.

Following a series of heated phone calls between Cruz-Mu*oz and MCO's office, the company was replaced. "They were asked to leave," Cruz-Mu*oz acknowledges. A new contractor was hired and finished the project in less than six days.

Cruz-Mu*oz says he had no choice but to replace the Otazos. "I don't care of they are cousins of my wife," he explains. "I'm trying to be as fair as possible. They have to do the job right or they won't get to do it at all." Cruz-Mu*oz does note that "for the most part MCO has done decent work" for the school district. He credits the firm with a willingness to take on jobs other contractors don't want because the pay is low or the work is difficult. MCO, he adds, was also available for work during the school district's time of need after Hurricane Andrew (a situation that would seem to contradict the Otazos' claims that troublesome airport contracts prevented them from seeking other jobs following the storm).

For her part, Cruz Otazo blames the school district for her company's failure to finish the Miami Jackson High project. In a letter to Cruz-Mu*oz dated December 3, 1993, in which she announces that MCO was going to "close down" the job site, Otazo said the district's inspector, Charles Armpriester, "embarked on a crusade to obstruct our operations." Cruz-Mu*oz says the charge is ludicrous. But perhaps not as ludicrous as what the school district received several weeks later A a bill from MCO demanding full payment for the Miami Jackson project in the amount of $13,282. That claim is still pending.

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