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"Let me give you some background," the professor continues. "On the day of the Bay of Pigs invasion [April 17, 1961], the university was occupied by army troops and it was seized and the records were destroyed. Many records disappeared. Since the very early Sixties, authorities have been extending affidavits to people who studied at the university and who were known by faculty members. There were thousands of cases. Cesar Odio was just one of the many thousands."
Records were destroyed during the time of the failed invasion, confirms Marta Gutierrez, a librarian at St. Thomas University and the official keeper of all transcripts and yearbooks that remain from the Cuban school, where she also served as librarian. The transcripts for 1958 and 1959 are gone, she says, taken by the registrar and never returned. All the yearbooks except 1959 and 1960 have been stolen. "People stop by sometimes wanting to know if Cesar Odio attended school at Villanueva," Gutierrez says. "I won't show them his transcripts unless I have his permission, but he did attend. So did his sister Sylvia. He didn't graduate, though."
Pressed in a subsequent interview to clarify her certainty that Odio did not graduate, Gutierrez modified her earlier statement. "I really don't know," she said later. "I remember him like a student. I know I remember him, but I don't know if he graduated. I think he didn't graduate, but I really don't know."
Gutierrez's hedging aside, there are still four people from the school who fail to corroborate Father Burns's letter, and just one person -- Antonio Jorge -- who speaks up for the city manager. Jorge, though, has the most reason to remember: Thanks to Odio, he has earned $130,000 to date as a city consultant. Cesar Odio first awarded Jorge a City of Miami contract on December 15, 1987. For the next nine months the professor advised Odio, according to the contract, "in all matters concerning policy, development, management, policy design, and implementation in the reorganization of various city departments, as well as on budget-related issues." He was paid $34,000.
The contract was renewed in October 1988 with a pay increase to $48,000. (Two months later, Jorge had Father Burns write the letter for Odio.) The contract was again renewed, at the same salary, on October 1, 1989.
At the Miami City Commission meeting scheduled for Thursday, January 25, Jorge is expected to reel in yet another city contract, to "update the City of Miami strategic plan of 1990." Jorge will again receive $48,000, this time for ten months of work. All of these agreements have been no-bid contracts, meaning that Odio awarded the work to Jorge without first determining if there was anyone more qualified or less expensive. Odio has been so pleased with Jorge that in 1991, when the professor was hoping to become president of FIU, Odio submitted a letter in support of his appointment.
Jorge denies any connection between the consulting work and the Burns letter. So does Odio. Even so, and even if Odio was enrolled through 1960, why is that diploma -- the one signed in the lower left-hand corner by Father Edward J. Burns -- dated 1958? Burns himself doesn't have a clue.
One Villanueva graduate living in Miami provides a provocative answer: Odio's diploma is fake. The woman, whose family is active in local politics, says a city employee approached her a few months before Odio was promoted to city manager. The city worker explained that he wanted to borrow her diploma, photocopy it, erase her name, and insert Odio's name. "It's true, but just keep my name out of it," the woman pleads, adding that she declined the request. "I don't want to be involved at all. I am scared of those guys."
"That is bullshit!" Odio spits when he hears the woman's allegation. "That is bullshit!"
A close examination of Odio's diploma, however, would seem to verify the woman's claim. On each of several random Villanueva degrees New Times inspected, the calligraphy of the recipient's name exactly matches the style of calligraphy used elsewhere on the diploma. For instance, on the Villanueva diploma hanging in the office of St. Thomas University professor John Bradley, the "Licenciado Master en Econ centsmicas" perfectly matches the script used to spell Bradley's name. This is not the case with Odio's diploma. The lettering used for the city manager's full name of Cesar Odio Toro is a simpler, thicker, sloppier script. It doesn't take a handwriting expert to note the discrepancy. "Yeah, the calligraphy is all crazy," Bradley acknowledged when shown a copy of Odio's diploma.
After some poking around, New Times found the former city employee who had sought to borrow the scared woman's diploma. As he sat on a couch in his Miami apartment chain-smoking cigarettes, he said he had spent nearly two decades working for the city, a few of those years directly under Odio. He is a media-savvy sort who talked for hours but, just before spilling the beans, demanded that his name not be used. Specifically, he said that Odio does not have a Villanueva degree. "I negotiated the whole deal to get his diploma," the man boasted with a proud smile. "I set up everything."