To at least a few Broward Teachers Union board members, it was a hard pill to swallow.
When former BTU President Pat Santeramo resigned in December — a resignation prompted by a pending criminal probe into spending irregularities — the longtime union head demanded to be paid for his accumulated sick and vacation time. The final payout amounted to more than $174,000, and was calculated based on an 11-year-old memo that Santeramo himself had unearthed.
Several board members suspected the memo was a fake — the signature and even the font used in the document just didn’t look right to them.
But board members were no longer in charge. The BTU’s financial disarray had prompted the union’s parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers, to assume control — and that organization was ready to cut Santeramo a check.
“When they made the decision to pay him out, I said, ‘Does it have to be done right this second?’ ” said former BTU executive board member Jeanne Albertus.
The AFT decided it did. In a letter to the union’s rank and file, the parent organization’s newly appointed administrator, John Tarka, wrote that Santeramo was “clearly” owed the money. But Tarka wrote that the payout would be less than the nearly $231,000 Santeramo had initially requested because it had been established that Santeramo was overpaid by $56,419 during his 10-year tenure.
So Santeramo was issued a check for $174,538.70.
“Honoring our commitments is more than a legal obligation,” Tarka wrote. “It’s a statement about our character and a fundamental value we teach our children.”
On Tuesday, prosecutors charged Santeramo with an assortment of crimes ranging from maintenance contract kickbacks to illegal campaign contributions. Santeramo, through his attorney, has denied any wrongdoing.
Included in the arrest warrant was a grand theft charge for “Mr. Santeramo providing forged document” regarding his vacation and sick time. Police say Santeramo used the fake memo to receive $121,848 more than he should have been paid.
If Santeramo is convicted, authorities will try to recoup the roughly $300,000 that he is charged with stealing from the union.
Former union board member Leslie Janin-Starr — who, like Albertus, opted not to seek reelection and stepped down last month — said there were “strong reservations” among some board members about issuing a check to Santeramo. Not only were there doubts about Santeramo’s memo being legitimate, but there were still thousands of dollars in union charges that Santeramo had to yet to fully explain or justify.
“We kept saying he did not deserve a dime,” Janin-Starr said. Regarding the memo, she said: “We had one member screaming, ‘Look at the difference in the font!’ ”
Santeramo’s memo, dated March 8, 2000, is two pages long, and the lettering on the second page does appear to be slightly darker than on the first page, though it is not certain that two completely different fonts were used. Definitely noticeable, though, is that the initials on the first page — purportedly representing the previous union president, Anthony Gentile — look starkly different from those on other union documents initialed by Gentile during the same time period.
Prior to paying Santeramo for his sick and vacation time, the American Federation of Teachers had an attorney review union records to determine whether Santeramo was really owed the amount he claimed. Miami attorney Kathleen Phillips determined that yes, Santeramo was due the full payment.
Phillips noted that the amount owed Santeramo was reflected in the union’s financial records and also in the minutes of previous board meetings.
Tuesday’s arrest of Santeramo, however, placed the reliability of past financial records in serious doubt, as the former president is accused of routinely fudging the budget numbers to obscure allegedly illegal spending. The accuracy of previous board meeting minutes, meanwhile, is a matter of some debate.
After the arrest, Tarka said he did not regret authorizing the payout to Santeramo. Tarka, who will oversee the union for at least a few more months, noted that the payment did not prevent the union from now seeking monetary damages from its former leader.
“We looked at the information we had, and we believed at that point that that was the correct step to take,” Tarka said.