March 26, 2021 Feature

A Tribute to Otto J. Hetzel

By Ernest B. Abbott

I first heard the name Otto Hetzel after arriving at a job at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). A junkyard owner’s claim of damage, arising from alleged damage caused by FEMA-funded reconstruction, had been rejected in district and appellate court. However, the claimant’s attorney, Otto Hetzel, had arranged a meeting at FEMA attended by a congressman, where FEMA had refused to provide funds to Otto’s client. A few months later, FEMA discovered Congress had directed FEMA, through an earmark in an appropriations bill, to pay millions of dollars to Otto’s client, and my deputy, who was frustrated at originally having had to assure that the junkyard owner would not receive millions of dollars in damages, was convinced Otto was at the bottom of it. This story reveals Otto’s dogged persistence for his clients and willingness to step outside the box to solve a problem.

Otto’s career was also marked by an intense focus on public policy and a willingness to change direction and go where the work was interesting and important. He became a Deputy Attorney General of the State of California early in his career. Shortly after the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was created in 1967, Otto was recruited as a HUD Associate General Counsel and was assigned as the lead lawyer for the new Model Cities program, an urban aid initiative.

The Model Cities program gave Otto a foundation for his future endeavors for state and local governments. He helped draft and enact the 1968 Fair Housing Act. He was responsible for many of the regulations, notices and correspondence dealing with issues surrounding this controversial pilot program. He stood at the intersection of state, local and federal officials — including the White House and Justice Department — citizens, NGOs, his HUD bosses, administrative law judges, the ABA and other public interest groups and entities.

HUD had been formed as a conglomeration of agencies, with urban transportation and natural disasters (including FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program) within its charter. Otto took what he learned from those programs when he departed in 1973, and began a new career, teaching community development and housing law at Wayne State University. He retired as Professor Emeritus some 20 years later. Otto recognized the critical importance of civil rights in the design and implementation of housing policy, and helped assure that civil rights were incorporated into HUD programs.

For 14 years, Otto co-edited the international journal, Urban Law and Policy. He co-authored the law school texts, Legislative Law and Statutory Interpretation, and Housing and Community Development. For 20 years, the Section published his column, Washington’s Labyrinthine Ways, which provided insight on activities in Congress and federal agencies. Otto attended Section conferences, served as Vice Chair of the Section’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Committee, helped organize panels and invited colleagues to incredible meals and enticed them to join him on sailing trips.

I first witnessed Otto’s networking skills after making a presentation on FEMA issues to a conference of municipal lawyers. Otto asked me questions at the end of the presentation about the relationship of FEMA to concerns of local governments. I was promptly recruited to join the Section and take a leadership role in its emergency management committee. Otto loved engaging a stranger on interesting issues, and enjoyed encouraging them to share their expertise.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, Otto added homeland security and emergency management to his areas of interest. He and Ernie Abbott co-edited Homeland Security and Emergency Management: A Legal Guide for State and Local Governments (ABA Press 2005, 2010, 2018), and he was an author in many of the editions. Otto was co-chair and reporter of The Law and Catastrophic Disasters: Legal Issues in the Aftermath, a two-day legal tabletop exercise involving a simulated disaster scenario.

He was involved with the ABA’s Administrative Law Section and chaired the Committee on Housing and Urban Development. He authored the chapter on HUD issues in the Section’s annual publication, Developments in Administrative Law and Regulatory Practice. He was a Life Trustee of the National Housing Conference.

Through all of his endeavors, Otto was creative and attentive to detail. He delighted in the craft of writing or expressing his opinion. But those who worked with Otto know he did not allow hard work to interfere with life. While at HUD, he frequently lunched with colleagues and contacts at an upscale restaurant, serving his passions of the love of networking and food.

Otto was a real Renaissance Man, with many friendships and joie de vivre. He practiced law well into his 80s. Otto passed away on Jan. 26, 2020. He will be deeply missed.


By Ernest B. Abbott

Ernest B. Abbott is co-leader of Baker Donelson’s Disaster Recovery and Government Services Team. He is a member of the ABA’s Standing Committee on Disaster Response and Preparedness.