On the surface at least, Ernesto Perez seemed to be a most remarkable South Florida success story.
Perez grew up in Little Havana from a Cuban-American family of modest means. He dropped out of Coral Gables Senior High in the 10th grade, eager to chase a career as a heavy metal musician.
Though he never achieved rock ’n’ roll fame, Perez struck gold as an educational entrepreneur. He founded Dade Medical College in 1999, and in the lucrative world of for-profit colleges, Perez’s own lack of education wasn’t an obstacle. The college grew quickly to include multiple campuses, and the now-wealthy Perez became politically active and influential.
But Perez, 45, resigned as president/CEO last Tuesday, hoping to distance the school from a slew of recent problems. He faces criminal charges, lingering ethical questions about his political activities, and a backlash from angry students who describe his school as a rip-off. He remains the company’s majority owner.
Among the issues dogging Perez and his college:
• Early this year, two of Dade Medical’s nursing programs — Miami and Hollywood —were placed on state probation because graduating students have such a poor record of passing their required licensing exam.
• In August, Homestead Mayor Steve Bateman was arrested on corruption charges. The charges did not involve Perez, but the arrest highlighted Perez’s unusually close ties to Bateman. Perez hired the mayor’s wife as his real estate broker, and he did so at the same time that he was trying to push through a controversial land deal with the city. The transaction, which is still pending, would sell a cluster of downtown Homestead properties to Dade Medical at a huge discount — Perez would pay less than 40 cents on the dollar. The Miami-Dade state attorney’s office is scrutinizing Perez’s ties to the now-former mayor.
• On Oct. 1, a group of students had their lawyer send a letter to the college — blasting the school as an “improper scheme” that overcharges students while delivering a lousy education. The letter implied that a lawsuit might be filed.
• A week ago, Perez turned himself in to face criminal charges stemming from his repeated failure to disclose his prior arrests. Authorities say Perez twice lied and said he had no criminal record when filling out paperwork to be appointed to Florida’s Commission on Independent Education — an oversight body that monitors for-profit schools. Prosecutors say Perez did the same thing (checking the “no” box under criminal history) when he applied to have his second arrest — a 2002 aggravated battery charge — expunged. Perez should have disclosed to the court that he’d been convicted previously for a sex crime involving a minor. He now faces two counts of perjury, a misdemeanor, and one count of providing false information through a sworn statement, which is a third-degree felony.
In previous interviews, Perez has said he took a “nontraditional path” to achieve the title of corporate CEO.
Instead of attending college, Perez spent his early 20s touring the country with his rock band, the Young Turks. After a 1990 performance in a bar near Neenah, Wis., the band members and some fans headed back together to a local motel. One fan was a 15-year-old girl, identified in court records as Jennifer V., who later said she was sexually assaulted by Perez and at least two other band members.