By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
It's good to manage the City of Miami. The pay, for one thing, is topnotch at $117,000 per year. The benefits are also stellar, including a splendid pension and a brand-new, top-of-the-line Jeep Cherokee with leather interior. Free gas. Free insurance. A generous expense account. There's even the occasional trip abroad.
If you can hold on to your job for as long as the current Miami city manager, Cesar Odio, politicians and lobbyists and city employees will throw a roast in your honor. At an elaborate affair this past November at the Rusty Pelican restaurant (and on city time), 400 well-wishers, from Cadillac dealer Norman Braman to lobbyist Rosario Kennedy to Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez feted Odio for surviving ten years at a city so poorly run that Martinez compared it to Beirut. The revelers ate "Chicken Roman-Off" and "Chocolate Chariot Mousse" while Odio sat on a plush scarlet throne wearing a crown, teething a fat cigar, and absorbing cheers of "Hail Cesar!"
The position has a few drawbacks, of course. For starters, job security is far from guaranteed. The city manager is supervised by the city commissioners and the mayor, who can fire him at any time. Before Odio commenced his reign of stability in December 1985, the city commission ran through five city managers in five years. Then there is the tricky business of actually managing the 34-square-mile city, of preparing the annual $260 million budget, of hiring more than 3000 employees -- and firing them when they don't work out. Just last month, for example, Odio was forced to terminate a job-training supervisor named Fred Hobson after it was discovered that Hobson had claimed to have certain academic credentials he in fact did not possess.
The firing of Hobson (and three other well-liked city workers) sparked a small but noisy protest outside city hall. Odio, as might be expected, was vilified. But that sort of thing comes with the territory. Making unpopular decisions is simply part of the job.
That particular demonstration of pique, however, illustrated something uniquely annoying to Cesar Odio. One of the protesters angrily shouted, "Odio fired Fred Hobson for not having a college degree, and he doesn't even have a college degree himself!" Of all the top administrators currently serving Miami, only Odio is being pestered by questions about his academic history -- and he has been dogged by such questions for years now. Political candidates have tried to turn the subject into a campaign issue. Policy opponents have spread rumors in an effort to undermine his integrity. In fact, the subject has become so vexatious that Odio keeps in his black leather wallet a small laminated copy of his diploma from Florida Memorial College. "They are always saying that I don't have a college degree," he sighs, shaking his head. The manager wishes the sheepskin skeptics would just go away. "These people have nothing better to do," he grumbles. "They should be out flying a kite or something."
And may they be struck down by lightening while they're at it.
That, it seems, is about what it would take to silence the incessant murmurs -- those imploring whispers that virtually beg investigation of the inconsistent dates on Odio's resume, diplomas, and college transcripts; the cries to question the teachers of Odio's courses; the invitations to flip through the course catalogues and yearbooks of both colleges from which Odio claims to have graduated. Only a divinely inspired zapping of his tormentors would silence this level of chatter.
In an effort to put the chatter to rest once and for all, New Times conducted its own investigation. The result: There is some truth to the rumors, and the city manager has good reason to appear defensive in discussing the matter.
Cesar Odio never graduated from Havana's Santo Tomas de Villanueva University, as he has claimed. The 1958 diploma from Villanueva sitting in his personnel file and hanging on his office wall at city hall is actually a cut-and-paste photocopy of someone else's diploma with the real person's name obscured by Liquid Paper correction fluid. Odio's name was added on top of that, in crude calligraphy, by a city worker under Odio's command.
A Catholic priest from Villanueva who wrote a letter asserting that Odio had graduated from the university in fact has no idea who Odio is.
Another person, the primary champion of Odio's Villanueva credentials, has received $130,000 in city consulting contracts since 1988, and is slated to receive another $48,000 contract when the city commission convenes later this month.
Odio's second bachelor's degree, from Florida Memorial College, is a more complex story, and is in some ways more interesting. While the diploma is genuine, and there is no smoking bottle of white-out, it is clear that Odio attended an off-campus extension of the college that, at the time, operated with less institutional control than the University of Miami football program.
He earned A's in classes the college shows no record of having offered. The program in which he was enrolled was so loosely organized and so poorly monitored that independent verification is now nearly impossible. Eventually it was exposed as having recruited such students as the mentally handicapped, even the dead.
Odio was able to graduate on time only after his principal teacher uncovered a long-lost passing grade from one of his classes. That same professor, who refers to Odio as his "long-time good friend," has also enjoyed Miami political connections strong enough to win him more than two million dollars in city grants since 1982.
The college degree: In its unrefined genesis it was not much more than what a Lexus or a BMW might be today -- something to separate elite social sophisticates from the mass of no-class blockheads. "The aristocracies decided they wanted to be quote-unquote educated," explains Lynn Buscaglia, assistant director of career planning and placement at the University of Miami. "They imposed education on each other as almost a status symbol. If you didn't know how to talk to these people on their level, then you weren't worthy."
These days, with aristocracies on the downswing, a college degree serves a similar, if less rarefied, purpose. The bachelor's degree has become a requirement for almost all levels of employment above menial labor (and journalism). "You need a degree to grab those good jobs," says Buscaglia. "In this day and age, when screening for jobs among applicants is so difficult, that is one of the screening elements: degree or no degree. If you don't have a degree, you go in the big stack. You don't get the job."
Except in Miami. To manage America's fourth poorest metropolis -- with its volatile mixture of wealth and poverty, skyscrapers and slums, and its dizzyingly polyglot population -- you don't need a college degree. You don't need any education at all, really. You need only "ten years of highly responsible administrative experience, eight of which must be at a department director level," according to the manager's job specifications on file in the city's department of personnel management. For anyone lacking ten full years of responsible experience, an equivalent combination of education and experience will suffice.
Sergio Pereira, the city manager who preceded Cesar Odio, didn't have a college degree but he still got the job. His 1985 appointment was sort of a scandal, though. City commissioners had hired a search firm, Korn/Ferry International, to assess the candidates vying for the vacant city manager's position. Korn/Ferry later stunned the commission by withdrawing odds-on favorite Pereira from its list of qualified applicants. Pereira, at the time an assistant county manager, allegedly told the consultants that he had graduated from Montclair State College in New Jersey and that he had earned a master's degree from the University of Utah. The firm made a few calls, discovered that no diplomas had been awarded, and denied Pereira's eligibility on the basis of willful misrepresentation.
City commissioners overcame their shock long enough to give Pereira a chance to explain himself -- then they completely bought his story. It turned out that Pereira, on his application for county employment, did not state that he had graduated from Montclair State College, only that he had attended the school for four years. Similar story regarding the University of Utah. But even though the search firm insisted that Pereira had spoken of a degree, he was cleared of lying because he had never claimed in writing to have the degree. "[It is] a thin excuse but valid," ventured Maurice Ferre, who was mayor at the time. "In our American vernacular, you have to prove him guilty. The question is not whether he lied, but whether he cut corners. At worst, maybe he mistakenly decided to look the other way. That's a problem. He said he didn't, so I'll take that."
Pereira stayed at the city for just eight months before ascending to the more prestigious county manager's position. Cesar Odio was his commission-chosen successor. Son of the owner of a prominent Cuban trucking company, Odio came into office with his own inaccurate resume. When he was hired as an assistant city manager in 1980, Odio did not mention his presidency of a failed trucking company. Nor was he truthful when he claimed to be part-owner of a Miami sand company he merely presided over. Odio sidestepped the discrepancies when they were discovered by reporters, characterizing them as "unintentional oversights."
Fortunately, there was no disputing his college credentials. On the resume he submitted when he first landed a city job, Odio claimed to have a bachelor of science degree from La Universidad de Santo Tomas de Villanueva in Havana, Cuba. The resume stated that he studied at the suburban Catholic college from 1956 until 1959. A lifelong learner, Odio went back to school soon after starting with the city, and on April 25, 1982, he pocketed a sheepskin from Florida Memorial College. That bachelor's degree, awarded in public administration, apparently involved taking two uninterrupted years of night and weekend classes -- an accelerated course of study made possible by a whopping 82 credits applied from Villanueva and, he stresses, many, many late nights.
"I studied," the city manager says today, his face twisting in exaggerated pain to demonstrate just how hard he studied. "I used to do all the homework. Oh, I did all the homework. It was right in the middle of the Mariel boatlift and I had to study at night. It was very hard work. And the thing is, I didn't need a degree! I had said I wanted to go to college here in Florida so I could have a piece of paper. Only afterward did I find out that I had a degree in Cuba. I didn't even need to go to Florida Memorial College."
Curious. Odio says he attended Florida Memorial College because he didn't realize he had already graduated from Villanueva. Yet the diploma from Villanueva that sits in his personnel file and hangs on the wall behind his desk is dated 1958. If Odio had possessed the diploma since 1958, how is it even remotely possible that he slogged his way through Florida Memorial by mistake?
A look at the Villanueva diploma raises more questions. The degree is signed November 3, 1958, and declares that he earned a bachelor of science degree in economics. But Odio's own resume states that he graduated a year later, in 1959. Why is that? And why did he tell the Miami News in 1985 that he had left Cuba in 1960 -- before he could get his degree?
Odio's answer to all of these questions is a third piece of paper, a well-circulated letter also contained in his personnel file. It was written by Father Edward J. Burns, dean of the Villanueva School of Economics from its inception until the spring of 1959. The typewritten note, dated December 2, 1988, states that Odio was enrolled in Burns's school. "Because of the unsettled political conditions in the country at that time," Burns's note explains, "he found it necessary to suspend his studies in the year 1960. He had, however, been enrolled in the University for several years prior to his departure, by which time Mr. Odio had completed the requirements for the degree of Licentiate in Economics [bachelor's degree]."
"This letter is from a priest no less, a Catholic priest, saying that I had already graduated," Odio emphasizes as he pulls a copy of the letter from a filing cabinet in the anteroom of his city hall office. "This proves that I didn't need the degree from Florida Memorial."
In the letter, Burns goes on to say that his endorsement "can be corroborated by the professors of the faculty of the School of Economics who taught the courses in which [Odio] had matriculated." That, however, appears to be a trouble spot. Two professors from the School of Economics at Villanueva currently teach classes at St. Thomas University, the North Dade Catholic school that descended from Villanueva when Fidel Castro closed the Cuban school in 1960. John Bradley, chairman of the St. Thomas business administration department, was an instructor at the Villanueva School of Economics in the late Fifties. He knows that Odio is the city manager of Miami, but he can't recall teaching Odio in Cuba. "No, I can't corroborate what Father Burns wrote," Bradley says, handing back a copy of Burns's letter.
Professor Tomas Rolando is a mathematician who taught statistics at Villanueva. According to transcripts Odio later submitted for credit at Florida Memorial College, he took two semesters of business statistics at Villanueva. Rolando fails to recall teaching young scholar Odio. "I have heard of him," Rolando says when presented with a copy of Father Burns's letter. "But not in Cuba, no. I was not paying attention."
Even Father Burns has a problem remembering. When he wrote the letter for Odio, Burns was living in New York. He has since retired to a concrete dormitory tucked amid Australian pines in a corner of the St. Thomas campus. When shown a copy of the letter this past November, Burns acknowledged authorship. He also admitted that he had no idea who Cesar Odio was. The retired priest said that he wrote the letter only because he was asked to do so by Antonio Jorge, a former instructor at Villanueva and currently a professor of economics at Florida International University. Burns wrote what Jorge told him to write. "I was the dean of the school, you know, and we get all these students coming in," Burns groaned, rolling his eyes in mock exasperation. "And someone calls up ten years later or so and says, 'Do you remember this guy?' Well, not really. They tell me something to write and I just go, `Okay.'"
Odio believes he can explain why Antonio Jorge asked Father Burns to write the letter. He and Jorge, who have a working relationship, had been talking some time in late 1988. "Dr. Jorge asked me why I had gone to Florida Memorial," Odio recalls. "I told him that I did it because I didn't have tangible proof that I had graduated from Villanueva. He told me, 'You are a fool. You have already graduated and I can prove it.'"
Jorge adds that he would have written the letter for Odio himself if Burns hadn't been available; former students often approach him in need of credentials. "The fact of the matter is, he took several courses with me," Jorge asserts, upset that the city manager is being singled out for attention. "He took those courses with me at the end of the program he was pursuing at that moment. Basically I think he earned more than sufficient credits for a degree. He had completed it successfully by October of 1960. I felt free to certify this. I reported this to the person who was the dean of the School of Economics at the time and asked that a certificate be made.
"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."
Sucking on one Marlboro after another, the former city worker explained that Odio suffered a scare during the 1985 selection of Sergio Pereira as city manager. When Pereira's lack of credentials was revealed by the search firm Korn/Ferry, Odio wanted desperately to find a diploma for the Villanueva degree he claimed on his resume. This former employee set about obtaining one. When asked if he had photocopied it and whited-out the owner's name, as the woman said, his eyes lit up. "That's exactly what happened! That's exactly what happened!" he repeated, the words sputtering forth in a rush.
The man emphasized that he is not a disgruntled former employee with an ax to grind. He believes that Odio is a good manager who has done a decent job for the city. "Why did I do it?" he said in response to a question about the fake diploma. "I like Cesar Odio, that's why. He's too stupid to be a bad guy."
Confronted with these new allegations, Odio finally adjusts his story. The plaque that hangs on his wall, the one photocopied into his personnel file, was actually given to him as a present by former city employees who worked with Antonio Jorge. "I got that diploma after they got me the affidavit [in late 1988]," he confides. "I studied there until 1959, so I had all my classes finished by 1958. It was given to me as a gift."
Unfortunately, Odio's admission only clouds matters regarding Villanueva. He now says the diploma is in fact a fake, though it wasn't produced to bolster his resume. He also says he studied at Villanueva until 1958. But Burns's letter states that Odio continued to study until 1960. Furthermore, Odio's resume, which states he already had a bachelor's degree from Villanueva, was filed with the city in 1980, eight years before he supposedly learned he'd earned enough credits to be awarded one.
In addition, Odio's claim that the diploma was a gift from city employees who worked with Antonio Jorge is contradicted by Jorge himself. The FIU professor says he had no involvement in obtaining the Villanueva diploma. In Jorge's mind, however, the stories behind the diploma do nothing to compromise its validity. Many Villanueva graduates, he says, have added their names to other people's sheepskins. "This matter was common practice," he says. "It was probably copied from a template. That's what I would think, that people who would lose their diplomas would use a template or a mold. Somebody probably just forgot to change the date."
Lately, Cesar Odio has downplayed his Villanueva education. An updated two-page biography tucked into his personnel file does not mention the Villanueva degree at all; instead it states only that Odio majored in business management (not economics) at the school. Of much greater interest in this more recent accounting of the city manager's life is the degree he earned in 1982 from Florida Memorial College.
In 1986 Florida Memorial, a traditionally black college, was caught by the Miami Herald awarding top grades to students in an off-campus extension at the Hialeah Convalescent Home. The "students" -- most of whom received up to $2500 per year in state and federal financial aid -- were senile or, in the case of two students who had garnered taxpayer assistance, were actually dead. According to the Herald, one star pupil had earned A's in geography, psychology, and mathematics, and held a 3.2 grade point average despite having no idea what the college classes were about. "My brain is too old," she reportedly said.
Florida Memorial's vice president for academic affairs claimed he didn't know a thing about the Hialeah "students" until informed by a newspaper reporter. Auditors swooped down on the college and forced it to repay the federal government nearly $300,000. No criminal charges were filed.
This is the school at which Cesar Odio thrived.
In his first semester, carrying a very heavy load of eighteen credits, he continued to work full-time for the city during a period when most Miami bureaucrats were overwhelmed day and night by the fallout from both the Mariel boatlift and the bloody McDuffie riots. Odio in particular was stretched to the limit: He was the person in charge of managing the boatlift crisis. Still, he nailed four A's and one B, good for a 3.8 grade point average. One semester later, in the spring of 1981, he carried fifteen credits and aced them all -- a perfect 4.0. His cumulative GPA at the time he graduated in April 1982 was a very impressive 3.7 -- magna cum laude.
Of course, at that time pulling down good grades at Florida Memorial College's extension was a breeze. Virtually anybody could do it. In fact, according to official school records and documents copied and saved by a former administrator, students enrolled in the extension program could receive passing grades for classes they never attended.
Standing at the administrative helm of this controversial program was Carmen Marina, a Ph.D. (in education) who broke into academia at Montclair State College in New Jersey. Yes, Sergio Pereira's old school. Marina taught the former city manager in the "B2" program, a precursor to the Bilingual Institute she would eventually run at Miami's Biscayne College. (Biscayne College was founded in Miami in 1961 by former administrators from Santo Tomas de Villanueva, one year after Castro forced the Cuban school to close. In 1984 Biscayne College added a law school and changed its name to St. Thomas University.)
According to press reports at the time, Mari*a left Biscayne in a huff on June 22, 1976, accusing a college administrator of "insensibility, lack of consideration, and obvious discrimination." The administrator, Father Patrick Laferty, denied he was doing anything outside his job description as vice president of academic affairs. He merely wanted to be included in the hiring of faculty members and in the drafting of their class schedules. "All of these are functions of my position," he said.
Most of the Bilingual Institute's 707 students -- half of Biscayne College's overall enrollment -- reportedly planned to withdraw from the college in support of Marina, which would have been a crippling financial blow to the school; each student brought the young and struggling college more than a thousand dollars per year in tuition and fees. For Marina, though, the show of student support was felicitous: She now had something of value she could sell to another college. The liberated administrator cast about for a school desperate enough for money to grant her the autonomy she sought. It took more than a year, and she ended up with just a fraction of her former Biscayne student body, but she did find a perfect fit at Florida Memorial.
At the time of its birth in 1879 near the Suwannee River at Live Oak, Florida Memorial was known as the Florida Baptist Institute for Negroes. The college moved to St. Augustine in 1918 after merging with Florida Baptist College in Jacksonville. Over time the school grew into a full-fledged college, first awarding bachelor of science and bachelor of arts degrees in 1945. The school's name was changed in 1950, then again in 1963 when it became Florida Memorial. Five years later the school moved to its current sun-baked home on the northern border of the Opa-locka airport.
The institution's frequent moves and name changes reflected its precarious financial situation. By 1975 the forecast for Florida Memorial was so bleak that the power company threatened to cut off its electricity. Two years later enrollment had fallen to only 300 students, while debt had climbed to eight million dollars. Educator Willie Robinson assumed Florida Memorial's presidency in 1977 with promises to stabilize the school's finances. He hired Carmen Mari*a in 1978.
Marina, who first taught only about twenty students in a weekend program on the main campus, was soon handed the keys to the school's new South Campus/Weekend Program, also known as the Flagler extension or, most commonly, the Hispanic extension. The program, which met on weekends at the main campus and weeknights at the south campus (originally in the basement of a Baptist church on the corner of Flagler Street and 35th Avenue), was founded by three Baptist ministers and a handful of Cuban activists. It was chartered to teach religion courses, but was also seen as a way to bridge the gap between Miami's blacks and the emerging Cuban population. This was the program in which Cesar Odio enrolled.
Among the professors Marina hired were her mother, Hortensia Novoa, and her brother, Gabriel Novoa. Several friends were also hired, including Rafael Cabezas, a fierce Cuban patriot and student of Marina's at Biscayne College, who was soon to be a familiar face at Miami City Hall.
Rafael Cabezas's influence over Cesar Odio's studies at Florida Memorial was substantial. Of the fourteen courses Odio took (not counting twelve credits of field placement at -- of all places -- the City of Miami), half of them were taught by Cabezas. School records regarding three of those classes raise questions neither Odio, Cabezas, nor Florida Memorial officials are able or willing to answer. One involves a highly propitious grade change; the others concern classes the college has no record of having offered.
In an interview with New Times, Cabezas declined to discuss in detail his tenure at Florida Memorial or his relationship with Odio other than to portray himself as a friend of the city manager and a sympathetic and accommodating professor. "I am a guy who always tries to help my Cuban people," he said. (Cabezas once served as president of Brigade 2506, the Bay of Pigs alumni group.)
Cabezas was particularly helpful to Odio in the spring of 1982. With commencement exercises just two weeks away, the aspiring graduate found himself still three credits short of qualifying for a bachelor's degree. It seems the registrar's office had no record of Odio having passed Public Administration 403 ("Management of Federal Government"), a required course for Odio's major.
Disappointment turned to celebration when Cabezas stepped in to solve the problem. The adjunct professor, who had last taught the class a semester earlier, transformed Odio's grade from "N/R" (not recorded in the registrar's office) to a B. College records show that Cabezas and extension director Carmen Marina ascribed the alleged error to an "omission."
Cabezas refuses to discuss the grade change. Carmen Mari*a declined several requests, by telephone and by fax, to provide comment or answer questions for this article. Cesar Odio did not respond to questions regarding the episode.
One person who has no problem discussing Florida Memorial's Hispanic extension program is 56-year-old Armando Pomar, a former professor, academic counselor, and director of the extension program. Of Odio's grade change from "N/R" to B, he says: "That's an extremely rare thing. Of the thousand or so students I advised, I only saw maybe five N/R's."
Pomar hasn't given much thought to Florida Memorial recently, but when contacted by New Times several weeks ago, he set about gathering up and reviewing the reams of documents he had compiled and saved from the early Eighties. An intense and jovial man who holds a B.A. in psychology from FIU and a master's from St. Thomas, Pomar methodically began collecting and photocopying school records and other data while working as an associate professor at the extension. His motivation: suspicion that the program was not being properly run.
He had been teaching at the Hispanic extension since its 1977 founding, but in the 1981-82 school year he assumed an added role, that of academic counselor responsible for scheduling the classes of 80 percent of the extension's 380 students. As he was reviewing the transcripts of one of his charges he noticed that she had received a C in Psychology 200. According to her transcripts, the class had been taught at the south campus on Thursday evenings. "I thought that was really funny," Pomar recalls, "because I knew she had earned a B in Psychology 200. And that her class met on the main campus on Saturdays at 3:30 p.m. And I knew that she had shown up for the main-campus class every day, and had taken the main-campus final exam. I knew because I taught the class."
Perplexed, Pomar pulled out some old records. He saw that prior to the spring 1982 semester, the student had registered for three weeknight classes on the south campus that the student was unable to attend. The student, in consultation with Pomar, decided to drop the three classes and add three others taught at the main campus on weekends.
Pomar surmised that for some reason the student's name had not been removed from the rolls of the three classes she had dropped. A clerical error might explain that. But how to account for the fact that she went on to earn two C's and receive one incomplete for classes she never attended and work she never performed? Intriguingly, one of those grades, a C in "Man in Society II," had been awarded by Rafael Cabezas.
In an effort to find an answer, Pomar began examining more records: student transcripts, various attendance and grade books, records of class schedules, and more. His inquiry turned to near obsession as he began documenting what he came to believe was widespread and systematic abuse.
He found that some extension instructors appeared to be teaching more classes than Florida Memorial regulations permitted. Other evidence suggested that students were receiving grades in classes they had never signed up for in the first place. A few students were even credited for classes that didn't seem to exist at all. Cesar Odio was among those.
A New Times analysis of the documents collected by Pomar shows that on two occasions, Odio's transcripts reflected credit given for classes the school had no record of offering. According to the college's official records, "Management of Urban Government" was not offered during the fall semester of 1980, when the newly enrolled Odio supposedly earned an A in the class. And in the next year's Summer Session I, "Racial and Cultural Minorities" was not offered. Nonetheless, Odio's transcripts state that he received a B in that class.
Odio concedes he cannot recall specific details from fifteen years ago, but says, "All I know is that I did go to class. I did my exams. I did all my homework and the homework was turned in and so on."
Karl Wright, Florida Memorial's current vice president of academic affairs, attributes the absence of course records to simple oversights of record keeping. "That doesn't mean that they [Odio's classes] weren't offered," Wright explains. "Most of the classes that we do not have records for are summer classes. That doesn't mean the classes weren't offered. It just means that it was a special arrangement. That happens all the time."
For Pomar at the time, however, the discrepancies pointed not to something innocent but rather to something sinister: greed. All Hispanic extension instructors were paid by the class (usually between $500 and $600 per course), and classes required a minimum number of students. If enrollment fell below that minimum, the class would be canceled and the instructor would lose the income.
Pomar understood the incentive -- the very real pressure in some instances -- for the teaching and administrative staffs to fudge the enrollment and attendance numbers now and then. He could also see why an extension instructor might want to find some way around the college's restriction on the number of classes per semester that could be taught (a restriction aimed at maintaining instructors' status as part-time workers). In addition, keeping students in school, preferably with a full complement of classes, ensured a steady flow of tuition dollars, especially from state and federal programs designed to assist low-income and minority students.
Compelling rationales aside, Pomar says he felt duty-bound to document the irregularities and report them to his academic superiors. (On his office wall, Pomar keeps a sign that reads, "Evil will triumph if good men do nothing.") He collected his findings in a 30-page packet, which he presented on June 7, 1982, to the college's dean of academic affairs, the president, and other top administrators. "None of them wanted to receive this information," he recalls. "I tried to deliver it by hand for days because nobody wanted to see it. Finally, I had to send [the packets] by certified mail to make sure they got delivered. They didn't want to know anything bad about [the administration of the Hispanic extension] because it was bringing the college $200,000 a semester. President [Willie] Robinson didn't want a scandal. He wanted the money."
Two weeks after sending his packets, Pomar received a written response from Florida Memorial vice president Clarence L. Cryer indicating that the college's grievance committee had studied his allegations and concluded that "the accusation of fraud should be investigated by the office of the dean of academic affairs." Before the fall semester began, Carmen Marina resigned as the full-time director of the Florida Memorial College South Campus/Weekend Program. Her resignation letter mentioned no reason for her decision, and the school's top administrators said nothing publicly. Armando Pomar was named the extension's new director.
Immediately he began cleaning up what he considered to be a mess. He sliced in half the number of courses taught at the south campus because he realized there weren't enough students to fill the classrooms. "The first thing I had to do when I took over the program was I had to drop 100 students from the rolls," he recalls. "They were phantom names."
At an extension program in Homestead Pomar found evidence of what he believed were more phantom student enrollments. Just as bad, though, Pomar found that several of the real people who attended were not quite prepared for college academics. "I only went [to the Homestead campus] a couple of times," he says. "I saw the classes were empty, four or five students were sleeping. I came close to one of them and I realized he was mentally retarded." Pomar shut down the facility.
This much change was too much for the administration, according to Pomar, and soon he found himself promoted to a position on the main campus so that someone else could be hired to maintain the Hispanic extension's money flow. His replacement, Pedro Capote, was presiding over the operation when it sought out students at the Hialeah Convalescent Home. Capote was fired when that scandal hit the papers.
Pomar lasted a bit longer. He stayed at Florida Memorial until 1990, when his contract was not renewed. Currently he works in southwest Miami for a storefront agency that distributes scholarships to Hispanic students.
Rafael Cabezas, according to his resume, stayed at the college until 1985, though he did not teach any classes while Pomar directed the extension program. He did, however, figure prominently in the 30-page investigative report Pomar sent to college officials. "This is totally ridiculous," Cabezas angrily says today. "The guy is against me. He is pushing me. Why? Maybe the motivation is the Cuban Intelligence Service. We have to take care of the Cuban Intelligence Service because they are very sophisticated and I am a guy that fights too much against Cuba." (Armando Pomar categorically denies being an intelligence agent for the Cuban government.)
Cabezas has gone from Florida Memorial to an especially fruitful relationship with the City of Miami. Three of the nonprofit businesses with which he is associated -- Allapattah Community Action, Inc., the Allapattah Merchants Association, and the Allapattah Business Development Authority -- have received from the city a total of more than $2,345,000 since Odio's college commencement ceremonies in 1982. This fiscal year alone ABDA received $387,700 in community development block grants. Even though ABDA is a nonprofit organization chartered to feed and house the poor, Cabezas himself makes out all right. As the 57-year-old executive director of the authority, which receives more than 90 percent of its funding from the city, Cabezas earns $40,000 a year plus health benefits.
In the wake of Florida Memorial's convalescent-home scandal, the school was required to pay back nearly $300,000 in student financial aid. Armando Pomar has estimated that a total of approximately $500,000 may have been misspent as part of the alleged abuses he uncovered. But because neither he nor any college officials reported the allegations to authorities, an outside auditing was never conducted. As far as Pomar is concerned, however, the problem solved itself: Suspect employees resigned or were fired, and the Miami Herald exposed some of the excesses.
The Hispanic extension continues to operate at Florida Memorial, by all accounts free of the questionable activities of the past. "We have had complete turnover here," says Karl Wright, vice president for academic affairs. "We have four people in the registrar's office right now. Not one of them worked for us back then." Still, enough records exist today to raise serious questions about what occurred. One of the founders of the Hispanic extension, who demanded that his name not be published, put it this way: Any government agencies still interested in collecting some of the money in aid grants that Pomar claims was fraudulently acquired would have no problem documenting the problems. "If you can get a subpoena for the records, it's like a bombshell."
Recently the Dade State Attorney's Office had an opportunity to investigate the controversy and delve into the school's records. Remarkably, Cesar Odio himself requested the probe. "I got so sick of these rumors [about his studies at Florida Memorial] that I actually called up the State Attorney's Office myself," he says. "I asked them to look into it for me." After requesting and then retrieving a copy of Odio's transcripts, chief investigator Charles Reynolds closed the case on April 19, 1994. According to his report, he did not talk to Armando Pomar or Rafael Cabezas or Carmen Marina, nor did he attempt confirm whether all of Odio's classes were actually taught.
But even if Reynolds had found something explosive, and even if, in a worst-case scenario, Odio's college degree were declared invalid, there would be little impact on the manager's career. College degrees act as door keys -- once you're inside, you don't need the key any more. And for years Odio has been deep inside.
Besides, if he lost his job today, the 59-year-old Odio would still collect a lavish pension, upwards of $90,000 per year. He also has also developed the kind of contacts who can virtually guarantee him a very fine job somewhere in Dade County.
But he probably won't need to go anywhere.
The same city commission that appointed Sergio Pereira as manager, despite allegations he had lied about having a college degree, is not likely to white-out Odio's career just because of a credibility problem. "I think his performance is much better than whatever degree he may have," says Commissioner Willy Gort. Mayor Steve Clark holds a similar opinion. "I don't have a problem if he has a degree or he doesn't," Clark says. "Harry Truman never had a college degree and he was the best politician there ever was."
Commissioner J.L. Plummer expresses some reservations: "I have a problem with people who lie -- period. If they lie once, they'll die again and again." But Plummer is withholding judgment on Odio until all the facts are in.
The city manager, however, isn't worried. "I don't even need a degree," Odio says. "I tell you that after doing this job for ten years, I could write my own degree.