Degrees of Ineptitude

For someone whose diploma from Havana's Villanueva University was constructed with a photocopy machine, a bottle of Liquid Paper, and a calligraphy pen, former Miami city manager Cesar Odio was a stickler about academic credentials. When he learned in December 1995 that job training supervisor Fred Hobson claimed to have college degrees he had not earned, Odio fired him.

He also fired Hobson's supervisor, Ivey Kearson, the man who had uncovered Hobson's suspect sheepskins. Kearson's zeal to expose Hobson prompted Hobson's employee union to scrutinize Kearson's work habits. When Miami police detectives and private investigators hired by the union noticed Kearson spending the bulk of a dozen working days at home or running errands, Odio promptly dismissed him, too.

The terminations were part of sweeping changes to the city's Neighborhood Jobs Program, a historically underperforming city agency designed to help low-income Miamians find steady work. A state oversight council had often criticized the program's sloppiness and ineffectiveness. In Odio's housecleaning, Kearson's supervisor was demoted; another employee was fired.

Odio quickly tapped Gwen Warren to revitalize the program. A job placement specialist with more than twenty years' experience working with the urban poor, Warren claims on her resume to hold two master's degrees from Michigan State University.

"Not from Michigan State she doesn't," says an official in the university registrar's office. "I can guarantee you that if you ask her for her diploma, she'll say she doesn't have one."

Which means that the woman hired to clean up a department shaken by an academic degree scandal does not have two of the degrees she claims. Even more remarkable, it appears that no one in city government bothered to check her background before she was hired.

Warren, who did not respond to a request from New Times for an interview, started her career in 1975 in Pittsburgh, California, monitoring that city's compliance with the federal Manpower Training Act. She climbed to different positions in several California cities before relocating to South Florida in 1994 to work for Jobs for Miami, a division of the Private Industry Council of Dade County. Council president Neill Robinson thanked Warren in a performance review for her "outstanding service," and called her "a very talented, experienced, innovative, and caring administrator."

She began working for the City of Miami in February 1996, after Odio's reorganization, and after Neighborhood Enhancement Team director Elbert Waters extended her a job offer. She earns $65,000 per year, plus benefits.

Waters's written job offer stated that Warren's hiring depended upon her passing a physical exam and a background check. Her personnel file reveals that she passed the physical. Other city records, though, show that human resources director Angela Bellamy did not investigate Warren's academic background until last month, after someone filed a public records request to see Warren's personnel file -- and more than a year after Warren had started work.

In a May 12 memo to Warren, Bellamy asked the jobs administrator to clarify several discrepancies on her employment application and resume. Most pressing of those was how Warren, whose application indicated that she had not graduated from high school, could have attended college.

Warren responded to Bellamy's questions with a six-page memo and 43 pages of attachments ranging from her Michigan State transcripts to letters of recommendation to a 28-year-old newspaper article that mentions her name. Warren explained in the memo that, while she did not graduate from Detroit's Mumford High School, she was accepted at and eventually earned an undergraduate degree from Michigan State. "Since I then indicated that I had attended college and included a transcript to support those claims," she wrote, "it is puzzling to me that someone in the human resources department, in reviewing my application, thinks I made an error in that regard."

Warren did earn an undergraduate degree from MSU, according to the school registrar's office, graduating in 1971 with high honors and a B.A. in sociology. The office also confirms that, from 1971 through 1975, Warren took graduate school classes, though she did not receive credit for six of the thirteen semesters she was enrolled. (During two of those semesters she attended Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C., before abandoning her law-degree ambitions and returning to Michigan State.)

Bellamy had not asked Warren to verify her Michigan State master's degrees. Warren provided an explanation anyway. By the spring term of 1975, her memo says, she had completed 45 credits of study, enough to satisfy the requirements for master's degrees in sociology and education. "I opted to apply for the dual master's degrees and filled out the required paperwork and left for [her new job in] California," she explained, arguing that she technically graduated even though she doesn't have a diploma. "As circumstances would prevail, I did not return to Michigan, and through the demands of settling into a new career and a new environment I failed to inform my advisor where I was, and after a time the whole issue slipped from my list of priorities.

"Oddly enough," she added, "I am making contact with the registrar's office at Michigan State University to resolve the status of my [dual] degree since I plan to continue work toward my doctorate at the University of Miami or at Florida International University in the fall."

While no written job description existed at the time of Warren's hiring, one is now on file at the city. It states that an advanced academic credential is not required, though a "master's degree [is] preferred."

Warren's City of Miami job has traditionally been part of the city's civil service and the hiring process entails extensive background checks and performance tests. City records show that, just before Warren was hired, Angela Bellamy declared it "not feasible" to fill the position through the civil service, allowing Warren to take the job with unclassified status and with virtually no background check. "I was not aware that this kind of detailed review of credentials was required for those individuals filling unclassified positions," Warren stated in her response to Bellamy's inquiry.

Bellamy did not answer written questions from New Times concerning Warren's credentials and unclassified status. Previously she has said that the hiring of unclassified employees was solely the city manager's responsibility.

Warren's supervisor, Elbert Waters, also failed to respond to an interview request. Assistant City Manager Robert Nachlinger, who had received a copy of Warren's memo, said he had just returned from vacation and hadn't had time to familiarize himself with the degree discrepancy.

Nachlinger, who came to Miami recently from Miami Beach, could not explain what the penalties are for providing false information on a city application. If there even are penalties. Consider the case of Fred Hobson: An arbitrator acknowledged that Hobson's resume was inaccurate, but overturned his firing on the grounds that it was too severe a punishment. So Hobson is back working for the city. He has been transferred to the General Services Administration, where he works as a de facto assistant director.

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