By Paul Kruze
A $655,000 construction contract for a modular building at Los Coches Creek Middle School in El Cajon was awarded last month to the son of the Cajon Valley Union School board president, East County Magazine has confirmed.
Before the vote, board member Jill Barto asked Otero: “Is this your husband’s company?”
Otero replied “No” and immediately brushed off the question, saying the internet connection to her computer on the dais was disconnected. (Barto says she asked about the family connections but her phrase “and your family” was masked by Otero’s response.)
Otero abstained from voting, but did not give a reason.
Barto may have asked about Otero’s husband for reasons beyond nepotism or conflict-of-interest concerns.
Five months ago, Tamara Otero’s husband, Andrew Otero, 54, and his business partner, Roger Ramsey, 57, were found guilty of fraudulently obtaining $11 million in federal contracts set aside for service-disabled veteran-owned businesses through Otero’s company, A&D General Contracting in Santee.
Andrew Otero is set to be sentenced in coming months and could face up to 20 years imprisonment and fined up to $6 million.
Dryw Otero, 28, is still listed as project manager at A&D General Contracting, his father’s construction company per his LinkedIn profile.
When directly contacted by ECM, Otero said that she believed that there was no conflict of interest with her son’s contracting company winning the bid for the construction work, and confirmed that Otero Construction is owned by her son.
“He’s grown,” Otero said. “He doesn’t live with me and is not my dependent. His business is not in my district. I have nothing to do with what he does.”
She said that she had not been notified of ECM’s California Public Records Act request for information about the building contract.
“I’m not aware that you requested that,” Otero said. “This is the first I heard of it.”
How might she react if she was a citizen seeing that the son of a school board trustee received a lucrative contract?
“I would have to investigate it,” she said. “I would not make an assumption without knowing what is actually happening.”
Asked if she had any further comment about a perceived conflict of interest, Otero said, “I’ve given you all of the information that there is and it is not a conflict of interest.”
Otero Construction Inc. appears to show at least one other principal shared with Dryw Otero’s father’s company. Damon Bahr is listed as chief operating officer at Otero Construction and project manager for A&D General Contracting, according to a LinkedIn profile.
When the construction project came up on the agenda at the March 26 board meeting, Barto made a motion to award the contract. Board Vice President James Miller seconded. Board members Jo Alegria, Barto, James Miller and Karen Clark-Meija voted to approve the contract.
It is unclear whether any other board member was aware that Otero Construction was owned by Tamara Otero’s son, or of his affiliated with his father’s company that defrauded the federal government.
According to the California Fair Political Practices Commission, “Certain officials (including city council members, planning commissioners and members of the boards of supervisors) have a mandated manner in which they must disqualify from decisions made at a public meeting (including closed session decisions) and must publicly identify a conflict of interest and leave the room before the item is discussed.”
Otero was observed by ECM and others sitting on the dais in the Board of Trustees chamber and can be heard in this recording made by ECM.
Otero Construction — founded in April 2017 with offices on the 8400 block of Magnolia Street in Santee — won a prior construction bid from the district for $14,000, according to a list of projects the company submitted with its bid.
ECM was not able to confirm details of this contract because the district failed to respond to its public records request within the 10 days mandated by state law. East County Magazine found a “Statement of Information” about Otero’s business from the California Secretary of State’s Office.
On April 5, ECM made a California Public Records Act request addressed to CVUSD Superintendent David Miyashiro, Assistant Superintendent Scott Buxbaum and Executive Assistant Naomi Rodrigues.
ECM did not receive a customary acknowledgment of the request and none of the recipients responded to ECM’s reminder that the CPRA request was due by 5 p.m. April 19. ECM did not receive any notice or any other communication from CVUSD that there would be a delay in responding to the records request surrounding the contract.
ECM did not receive a customary acknowledgment from the district, nor did the district or any of the three individuals acknowledge a follow up letter to the district sent on April 12 reminding them that unless otherwise advised, the request for materials was due by 5 p.m. April 17 or at the latest 5 p.m. April 18.
On April 23, ECM advised Miyashiro, Buxbaum and Rodrigues of a violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act that the materials requested had occurred and gave the district until 5 p.m. April 24 to either respond to the letter or respond with the requested materials.
In addition, ECM made a CPRA request to the CVUSD asking whether Andrew Otero, Ramsey and their associated companies, A&D General Contracting, Action Telecom, named in the original federal indictment have done any past work for the district. The CPRA was sent by email to Miyashiro, Buxbaum, Rodrigues and Sharon Clay, CVUSD’s Director of Purchasing and Logistics. The email request was not acknowledged, and is due by 5 p.m. May 3.
ECM on Friday received an email from CVUSD attorney David Shinoff the day after Tamara Otero was interviewed for this article. Shinoff blamed the nonresponse to the April 5 CPRA request on it being directed to the district’s “spam” folder when sent to Miyashiro, Rodrigues and Buxbaum.
Shinoff did not indicate whether the subsequent CPRA request related to Andrew Otero and Roger Ramsey sent to the same persons including Clay on April 20 at 2:58 p.m. ended up the same way.
Section 9 of the Regulations of the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) section 18730 “Provisions of Conflict of Interest Codes” states, “No designated employee shall make, participate in making, or in any way attempt to use his or her official position to influence the making of any governmental decision which he or she knows or has reason to know will have a reasonably foreseeable material financial effect, distinguishable from its effect on the public generally, on the official or a member of his or her immediate family.”
CVUSD’s own official “Conflict of Interest Code” says: “The provisions of 2 CCR 18730 and any amendments to it adopted by the Fair Political Practices Commission, together with the attached Appendix, specifying designated positions and disclosure categories, are incorporated by reference and shall constitute the District’s conflict of interest code.”
The FPPC may levy administrative penalties for violations of the Act after a hearing or stipulation. (§ 83116.) Administrative penalties include a $5,000 fine per violation, cease and desist orders, and orders to file reports, etc. (§ 83116.) The FPPC has the authority to bring administrative actions against both state and local officials.
Besides being the president of the CVUSD, Otero also is vice president of the California School Boards Association. (Emma Turner of the La Mesa Spring Valley school board is president of the advocacy group.)
Handy Industrial, owned by Iranian-born building contractor William Raz, came up $5,000 short of Otero Construction’s winning low bid of $655,000 with both contractors allowing $20,000 for “unforeseen site conditions.”
Raz suggested to ECM that he was not concerned at first about the $5,000 difference. “But when I reviewed his bid, everything was typed on the bid, but the pricing on the (last) sheet was in handwriting,” he said. “When [Otero] signed on the other pages and had some lettering, it was way different than his handwriting.”
He adds, “I am assuming that someone opened my bid and changed the sheet and closed it [the envelope]. It was then brought back into the room and read out loud. That’s what I’m feeling. You can see that it was written on the sheet very fast,” Raz says.
“Unfortunately, the thing is I don’t have the proof. When the district opened the bids, they could have gotten a new envelope and sealed it.”
Raz completed a weather shelter project for CVUSD at Los Coches Creek Middle School about 10 years ago.
ECM asked Music Watson, public information officer for the San Diego County Office of Education, about the ethics of failing to disclose that a contract being voted on was for the company of a board member’s son.
Watson responded: “The allegations you’ve listed below are very serious. SDCOE is not an investigatory body, so it’s not for us for determine if there is a conflict of interest or not. If specific information was presented to us regarding these allegations (which district, which board member, etc.), we would turn that information over to the District Attorney’s office for investigation and allow the legal process to play out.”
A version of this story was first published by East County Magazine, a member of the San Diego Online News Association. Reposted with permission.
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