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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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On January 24, when Martha Ayerdis filed a discrimination grievance with the Dade County Affirmative Action office, she officially entered the murky waters through which sexual harassment allegations run their bureaucratic course. But not even the 39-year-old Ayerdis, who worked as a defense lawyer in her native Nicaragua before escaping the political turmoil and moving to Miami in 1987, could have foreseen the outcome. On March 3 Affirmative Action specialist Juan de Ona found that Odis J. Olivero had indeed sexually harassed an employee under his supervision at the Dade County Community Action Agency (CAA) A only it wasn't Ayerdis.
Unassuming and orderly, Martha Ayerdis shares a small apartment near the airport with her husband Raymundo (also an attorney), her mother, and two daughters. Since moving to Miami she has completed a B.A. in criminal justice at St. Thomas University, but she has so far been unable to find a job in the legal profession. In September of 1992 she began working as a clerk under Olivero in the facilities management unit of the CAA; like many county workers, she was assigned to the position through a temporary employment service, Work-King Inc. And for more than a year, alleged Ayerdis in her complaint, Olivero sexually harassed and verbally abused her. "He would say things like, 'That dress makes you look good,' and, 'Your eyes have a light that excites me,' and that he deserved a wife like me," says Ayerdis, clenching well-manicured fists. "Of course it was usually when no other employee was present. Every time he said these things, I rejected him. But when I did, he would start to make life unbearable at work. He'd yell at me, humiliate me in front of other employees, even violently, to the point of pounding on the desk."
In keeping with her legal training, Ayerdis buttressed the county's grievance form by meticulously detailing her accusations in writing and forwarding letters to County Manager Joaquin Avi*o and Commissioners Alex Penelas and Natacha Millan, as well as to CAA executive director Dorothy Davis and Affirmative Action director Marcia Saunders. She got in touch with current and former CAA employees and asked for their support. Increasingly anxious about the outcome of the Affirmative Action investigation, she also sought psychological help.
Affirmative Action's Juan de Ona interviewed current and former CAA personnel who seemed to corroborate Ayerdis's descriptions of Olivero's angry outbursts. Olivero, a twelve-year county employee with a spotless personnel record, often yelled at his employees, De Ona was told, and Ayerdis was a frequent target; sometimes she would weep as he berated her for turning in work late, for making errors, for her imperfect English, for being incompetent.
When De Ona contacted Javier Casta*o, the CAA temp did far more than back up Ayerdis in an interview. He prepared a four-page statement, signed and notarized. In the affidavit, Casta*o confirmed that he had heard Olivero tell Ayerdis "that she looked sexy or that her dress looked sexy." He had far more to say, though, about Olivero's treatment of two other women who quit after working briefly in the office. In both women's cases, Casta*o stated, Olivero repeatedly "would get so close...as to make [them] uncomfortable.... He would touch them with shoulder, elbow, leg, or whatever...invading [their] personal space." One of the women worked in the office for only a week and has since left the temp agency. The other woman stayed longer, and Casta*o reported that she often complained to him that Olivero was constantly asking her personal questions and inviting her to lunch. On the day he submitted his affidavit, Casta*o resigned.
Nicole Ferrer worked at CAA for three months in early 1993. The 24-year-old U.S. Army vet never lodged a complaint with Affirmative Action, but when Juan de Ona was given her phone number by Martha Ayerdis, Ferrer told the investigator that Olivero's improper advances, coupled with his volatility, had repulsed and frightened her. "I have never worked in a place like that," says Ferrer, who served with her husband in the Persian Gulf War and who was adjusting to civilian life with a young daughter when she was assigned to facilities management. "It was a bad experience. [Olivero] is a very vulgar man. He didn't just do it to me, he did it to everyone. No one, including me, seemed to have the guts to speak up. I just couldn't."
Nicole Ferrer says she brought up the problem with Harry Escand centsn, who as director of the facilities management unit is Olivero's supervisor. "I let him know I was very afraid of Odis Olivero," Ferrer says. "When I told Mr. Escand centsn, he called Odis into the office with me. It was like a joke. He told Odis I was afraid of him. Then when we went back out into the office, all the workers were sitting around, and Odis said in Spanish, 'So you're afraid of me,' in front of everyone. I never said anything back to him after that. I tried to stay in my little corner."
Olivero categorically and forcefully denies making any remarks of a sexual nature to a female employee and says that any touching that took place in the office was accidental. "I have worked with so many young girls who would tell you I would never do such a thing," says the 35-year-old supervisor. "Probably Martha pressed [Ferrer] into saying these things." Olivero also disagrees with Ferrer's assertion that there was a confrontation in the office, and Harry Escand centsn maintains that Ferrer never complained to him about Olivero.