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In the Line of Firing

When Conchy Bretos was recently fired as executive director of the Dade County Commission on the Status of Women, a brief uproar ensued. The dismissal of the one-time county commission candidate prompted three days of headlines and a critical editorial in the Miami Herald. The Florida Commission on Hispanic Affairs convened an emergency meeting in Miami and voted unanimously to condemn the action. Amid cries that the firing was the result of a political vendetta by one or more county commissioners, critics called on Gov. Lawton Chiles to step in and demand an investigation by the Dade State Attorney's Office.

A month has passed since Bretos got the ax on July 9, and what once seemed an outrage now appears destined to pass quietly into the humid night. That irks Bretos's supporters, who are convinced that foul play was involved and claim that county commissioners routinely violate a provision of the Dade County charter prohibiting them from meddling in the hiring or firing of Metro employees. "I think county commissioners are involved on a regular basis in the hiring and firing of county staff," says Jacqueline Basha, a member of the Commission on the Status of Women and a political consultant who helped run Bretos's failed Metro campaign this past spring. "And they get away with it because there is no watchdog."

The county charter considers such interference to be a grave offense; any commissioner found guilty of violating the provision can be removed from office. In reality, though, politicians have little to fear. According to a spokesman for the State Attorney's Office, no commissioner in recent memory has been charged with -- or even investigated for -- allegedly interfering in personnel matters. If history is any judge, it's unlikely the public will ever learn all the facts surrounding Conchy Bretos's professional demise.

Initial speculation centered on Bretos's political rival, Commissioner Bruce Kaplan, who defeated her in a race for the newly created District 5. The campaign was notable for its nastiness; Kaplan in particular drew criticism for what many characterized as vicious and mean-spirited tactics. While Kaplan's name may be near the top of the list of people who would relish seeing Bretos fired, he is not alone. A more likely candidate, Bretos and others now suggest, is Commissioner Natacha Millan.

Since winning her commission seat this past April, Millan has exhibited a strong interest in the Commission on the Status of Women, a 27-member standing committee that for the past twenty years has championed women's issues before the county commission. One of Millan's first proposed pieces of legislation was an ordinance requiring every member of the women's commission to resign effective September 1 so the newly constituted county commission could fill the panel with its own choices.

Last week commissioners decided to delay voting on Millan's proposal until at least September or October, when they will consider a master plan addressing terms and appointments to all 62 county boards and commissions. The master plan has been in the works for months, and at least one commissioner privately expressed dismay that Millan had singled out the women's commission for change.

Commission member Jacqueline Basha complains that during the time Millan was drafting her proposed ordinance, she never attended any meetings of the women's commission, nor did she voice any concerns to the group as a whole. Basha's husband, political consultant Phil Hamersmith, believes Millan's rush to purge the women's commission marks her as a prime suspect in Bretos's firing. "In my opinion, she gave herself away with this ridiculous ordinance," says Hamersmith. "It shows she has a personal agenda for this group."

Conchy Bretos agrees, adding that shortly after Millan was sworn in as a county commissioner, she began digging into the work of the women's commission. "She was very keen about getting a lot of information about the commission and about me while I was there as the executive director," notes Bretos. "She mentioned to several people that she wanted to get her own person in that office." Millan's motivation, Bretos contends, may stem from an embarrassing episode about a year ago, when Millan was tossed off the women's commission. While preparing for her Metro campaign, Millan had sought and received an appointment to the Commission on the Status of Women. However, she was quickly removed because the group's bylaws forbid elected officials from serving; at that time Millan was a member of the Hialeah City Council.

Bretos claims Millan was hurt by the snub and concluded that Bretos instigated enforcement of the rule barring elected officials. "I think she somehow blames the whole incident on me," says Bretos, who believes the episode signaled a break in their relationship. "She had always been one of my greatest supporters," Bretos adds. In fact, when she applied for the job of executive director of the women's commission in September 1989, she listed Millan as a reference.

During the recent county commission campaign, Millan publicly supported Kaplan over Bretos. One political insider claims Millan sees herself as the grande dame of Hispanic politics and that she felt slighted when Bretos did not ask her blessing before running for the commission. Besides, the source says, Millan wanted to be the first (and for now, at least, the only) Hispanic woman to sit on the county commission. Following Kaplan's victory over Bretos in April, Millan fulfilled that ambition. (Natacha Millan did not return numerous phone messages for comment. When confronted outside her commission office last week, she refused to discuss Bretos's firing or her interest in the women's commission.)

Bretos's charges of political chicanery -- whether by Kaplan, Millan, or someone else -- are fueled by the unusual manner in which she was fired and by the fact that those involved tell widely differing stories. County Manager Joaquin Avino, for example, has said Bretos was fired because she lost the support of the women's commission membership. Yet the commission as a group never complained about Bretos, and no vote was ever taken to recommend her dismissal. On the contrary, most commission members said afterward they were shocked by Bretos's termination; nine of them dashed off a letter of support when they learned Community Affairs Director Ari Sosa was about to dismiss her. It arrived just minutes after she was fired.

Sosa, who was Bretos's immediate supervisor, says he took action after receiving a July 2 letter of complaint from Lynn Leight, commission chairwoman. Leight hounded him, he says, calling him repeatedly with gripes about Bretos and urging him to fire her.

Leight, however, asserts she was manipulated by Sosa and was tricked into writing a negative letter, which Sosa then used as justification for giving Bretos the boot -- despite his promises that it would not be used to that end. Leight's letter to Sosa begins: "I am submitting this letter in response to your request." It ends by stating, "My conscience would not rest" if the letter was used as a reason to dismiss Bretos. "Please recognize that this letter is not written with this intent."

Community Affairs Director Sosa and Commissioner Millan have known each other for nearly 40 years, since they attended St. Thomas of Villanova University in Cuba in the mid-1950s. Sosa's office is just down the hall from Millan's, on the sixth floor of the Metro-Dade Government Center. Despite the friendship and daily proximity, Sosa says he never met with or spoke to Millan, about any subject, in the months preceding Bretos's dismissal. "There was no reason to talk to her," he explains.

Bretos doubts Sosa's claim: "I'm sure that they talked; they're friends." And given Millan's intense interest in the women's commission, Bretos wonders, how believable is it that Millan would never have spoken to Sosa, whose responsibilities include oversight of the commission?

Bretos says when Sosa called her into his office July 9, he was extremely upset and said he did not want to dismiss her. "When he handed me the termination letter, tears came down his face," Bretos recalls. "I had never seen him cry before. I believe he didn't want to fire me. I truly believe he was doing this under tremendous pressure from above."

Sosa denies weeping or being pressured.


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