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The Post-Standard

State: You're No Longer Hispanic

Definition excludes people from Spain; established local contractor pays the price.

By John O'Brien

June 13, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Post-Standard. All rights reserved.

New York state officials recognized Rocco Luiere as Hispanic for 15 years.

Suddenly, the state says he's not - at least not under its definition for minority businesses.

His maternal grandparents were born in Spain, which would meet most dictionary definitions for Hispanic meaning Spanish or Spanish and Portuguese.

The federal government considers him Hispanic.

But he doesn't meet New York state's definition, so in April the state revoked his minority business enterprise certification for his Cazenovia road construction company, Jana-Rock Construction Inc.

Luiere says he has to lay off up to one-third of his workers and has already sold 30 percent of his equipment. He'll stay in business without the minority business certification, but on a smaller scale, he said.

Luiere sued the state Department of Economic Development in federal court last week over its decision.

"All Hispanics started in Spain," Luiere said. "If there is discrimination, the people who discriminate don't stop to ask where you're from. They're not going to say, 'Are you Juan Castro from Mexico, or Juan Castro from Spain?' "

The state's legal definition of Hispanic makes no mention of people from Spain or Portugal. It includes people of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Cuban, Central or South Ameri- 0 can - either Indian or Hispanic - origin. The definition hasn't changed since Luiere's business was first certified in 1987.

The federal equivalent of the state's law on minority businesses does include Spanish people in its definition of Hispanic.

And state agencies that receive federal funding, including the Department of Transportation, include Spain in the countries defined as having Hispanic descendants.

Luiere (pronounced "loo-WARE") said the revocation of the state certification will cost him "a huge amount" of business.

"They're putting us through a ringer, making life miserable," Luiere said last week.

State officialshave not given Luiere a reason why Spain was left out of the definition of Hispanic, he said.

Deborah Wetzel, spokeswoman for Department of Economic Development, said agency officials could not comment on the case because it's the subject of a lawsuit. Winthrop Thurlow, an assistant state attorney general in charge of the Syracuse office, also refused to comment.

Luiere's minority certification helped him win some contracts because the state is required under the law to hire a certain number of businesses owned by minorities or women.

Luiere had always told the state his ancestors came from Spain. But it wasn't until last year that someone in Economic Development's division of minority and women's business development took issue with it. The state agency notified Luiere in February 2003 that Jana-Rock would not be recertified.

Luiere appealed the state's decision. After a hearing, Administrative Law Judge James Horan ruled in Luiere's favor two months ago.

Horan recommended that the state reinstate Jana-Rock's minority business certification because the state's definition of Hispanic should have been changed to coincide with the federal definition.

Federal regulations "clearly conflict with the (state's) definition of Hispanic. . . because the federal regulations would recognize a person with Spanish heritage, such as Mr. Luiere, as Hispanic," Horan wrote. The federal regulations are grounds enough for the state to waive its definition of Hispanic and renew Luiere's certification, the judge wrote.

But Jorge Vidro, director of the state's minority and women's business program, rejected the recommendation.

He cited a state study in 1993 that showed Hispanic businesses were discriminated against and were therefore entitled to special treatment as minority businesses, and said the definition of Hispanic didn't change after the study. He said Horan could not usurp the authority of the state Legislature, which crafted the definition.

Expanding that definition would include as minority businesses "an ethnic category of people, those of Spanish descent, that may or may not have been" victims of discrimination, Vidro wrote.

Luiere says Hispanics from Spain, including him, were part of that state study. The state may have inadvertently neglected to update the definition of Hispanic, he said.

Luiere's company does meet the definition of Hispanic for any state jobs that include federal funds, such as Department of Transportation work, but not for jobs that are funded solely by the state.

Some minority groups want to keep the definition limited so they can take greater advantage of affirmative action, Luiere said. That could be behind the state's reluctance to change the definition, he said.

"The fewer people participating, the better for them," he said of other minority groups which he would not identify.

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