This past January county commissioners voted to accept the findings of a study showing that companies owned by Hispanics and women have long suffered discrimination in their dealings with Dade County. It was the first step in what some commissioners believe will lead to a series of laws that will force the county to set aside public contracts, or portions of contracts, for firms headed by Hispanics and women.
Such a move will also give greater prominence to firms such as MCO Environmental (which stands to benefit from such laws) and to its president, Cruz Otazo, who has been an outspoken leader in the move to reform the way the county does business with women and Hispanics. At a press conference coinciding with the commission's vote, Otazo sounded a triumphant note: "Women are the perennial outsiders in Dade County. This is going to be our year." For "Cuqui" Otazo, such a year has been a long time coming.
Otazo refused to be interviewed for this article, but according to a Miami Herald profile published in June 1992, she was born in Havana and moved with her family to New York in 1960. She studied Spanish and literature at Adelphi University in New York before attending the State University of New York at Stonybrook, where she received a master's degree in 1974 in Spanish and literature.
In 1975 she reluctantly followed her family to Miami, where she became a substitute teacher for Dade County Public Schools. Otazo also taught at Archbishop Curley High School and West Lab, both private schools.
She moved on to higher education in 1977, teaching humanities for two years at Miami-Dade Community College. Her next step would be Florida International University, where she accepted a faculty position in 1979 as a grant writer, an experience she would later describe as invaluable. "I really had enough of teaching and I learned about public funds," Otazo told the Herald. "I think back every day now to FIU, how it taught and helped me."
In 1979 she was a founding member of the Coalition of Hispanic-American Women, a group that assists female Hispanic business owners. In 1981 she ventured into the world of business herself, opening the Children's Development Center, a day-care facility located on Flagler Street, which she ran until she became president of MCO Environmental.
Although the firm initially began as a construction company, the work soon shifted almost exclusively to asbestos removal. Cruz Otazo is listed as MCO's president, treasurer, and director. Corporate records list her husband, Julio Otazo, as vice president. No other directors or officers are registered with the Secretary of State's office in Tallahassee.
Ironically, according to officials at the Department of Professional Regulation's Construction Industry Licensing Board, Cruz Otazo herself is not certified to perform asbestos-removal work, which means she is unable to visit or supervise any of her work crews inside an asbestos-containment area. That job falls to her husband, who is certified.
Julio Otazo is a professor at FIU, in the construction management department. He has been with the university for twenty years and was awarded tenure in 1982. In addition to operating MCO, he carries a full-time teaching load. His classes include courses in hazardous waste and how to estimate the cost of construction projects. "He is an outstanding instructor and his classes are very popular with students and always get very good evaluations," says Jose Mitrani, chairman of FIU's construction management department. "He is a key member of this department."
Over the years, MCO's business has expanded and the firm counts among its clients the City of Miami and Dade County Parks and Recreation, as well as its largest clients A the Dade County Aviation Department and the Dade County Public Schools. Cruz Otazo once explained that an emphasis on taxpayer-funded projects was particularly necessary in the company's early days, when she and her husband were first looking for contracts. "We really had to rely on public work," Otazo told the Herald in June 1992, "and that wasn't good because you'd go to make a bid, and seventeen different contractors would be there. Everyone was driving down the prices."
While prices may have been driven down, Cruz Otazo's profile in the community was steadily rising. This past November, when an anti-crime coalition was formed A headed by community leaders such as Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, County Commission Chairman Art Teele, and then-school board chairwoman Janet McAliley A Otazo was one of the first recruited to sit on the panel.
Six months earlier, when We Will Rebuild was drawing fire for not including enough women on its board of directors, the hurricane relief group turned to Otazo as well, electing her to its ranks last May.
In 1992 she became the first woman to sit on the 21-member board of directors of the Hispanic-American Builders Association. "It was her staunch defense of Hispanic women's rights and enterprises, her ability to communicate, and her knowledge in the business field that attracted us to her," association executive director Roberto Cervera-Rojas stated at the time. By 1993 she became vice secretary of the association, which boasts more than 200 members.
And she has been increasingly active on the political stage. During last year's county commission elections, she was a prominent supporter of losing candidate Conchy Bretos and winner Natacha Millan, who became the first Hispanic woman to serve on the county commission. Otazo is also listed as a contributor to County Commissioner Alex Penelas's campaign. At the time, Penelas was chairman of the commission's aviation committee, which oversees projects at the airport.
Her political enthusiasm spilled over into MCO Environmental, according to employees, who say that Otazo encouraged some of them to contribute money to various commission candidates. Former office workers recall that during last year's commission races, they stuffed envelopes during working hours for at least one commission candidate, though they don't remember who.
Another aspect of the Otazos' success has been their tenacious approach to dealing with critics and governmental bureaucrats. This has become particularly evident in the past year as they have pressed for a settlement of $13 million in claims they have filed against the county for work at Miami International Airport.
Last summer, when Buddy Klein, founder and long-time head of DPC General Contractors, first heard that MCO Environmental was demanding more money for those projects, he began questioning the company's claims. Klein wrote airport officials asking to receive copies of the material MCO had submitted and he made it clear that if MCO was allowed such a substantial increase in its pay, his company might also consider submitting demands for additional money for similar work DPC had performed at the airport.
When MCO became aware of Klein's interest, the company's attorney, David Swimmer, wrote him a terse letter saying the Otazos had hired him to investigate Klein and to determine if DPC should be sued for questioning MCO's claims. "Unless your intention is to provoke litigation by MCO Environmental, Inc.," Swimmer wrote, "in which case MCO Environmental, Inc., is prepared to accommodate you, I suggest you refrain from any further attempts to interfere with MCO Environmental, Inc.'s relationship with [the Dade County Aviation Department] or its claim for additional compensation. I would prefer not renewing our acquaintance in a deposition or at a jury trial."
Klein says he read the letter a couple of times, made a photocopy of it, then scrawled his reply in bold letters across the page: "David A this is bullshit." He mailed it back to Swimmer.
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MCO has yet to file suit against Klein and DPC, although Swimmer told New Times that was almost certain to happen. Swimmer also warned the newspaper that if it wasn't "careful" in preparing this article, it too would be sued.
Although MCO officials have refused to cooperate with New Times, they have expressed a keen interest in research for this story. Two days after the newspaper filed a public records request with the aviation department to review some of MCO's projects, the company, through Swimmer, filed its own public records request in an effort to determine what documents New Times had requested. Former MCO employees say such behavior is characteristic. "They believe that the world is out to get them," says one former employee who asked not to be named. "They always view themselves as the victims, that they are the underdogs."
That assessment found resonance earlier this month when the Miami Herald noted the controversy surrounding MCO's multimillion-dollar claims against the county's aviation department. "We have been treated like dirt," Cruz Otazo complained. "We are a Hispanic company and I am a woman. The minute you go out there and compete with the big boys, they are out to get you."
MCO Environmental appears ready to take a swing of its own at the big boys in Dade County government. On March 11 attorney David Swimmer sent a letter to Assistant County Attorney Deborah Mastin. Swimmer informed her he has been "instructed to immediately institute litigation" to recover more than $7.4 million the Otazos claim they are owed. The letter went on to state that a copy of the lawsuit would be delivered to the county in "a couple of days." As of March 25 the county had received nothing.