Former Goodwill chief in South Florida admits to campaign law violation

05/19/2014 11:44 AM

05/19/2014 6:32 PM

When he retired two months ago, Dennis Pastrana was widely praised for turning struggling Goodwill Industries of South Florida into a thriving, multimillion-dollar non-profit helping people with special needs.

On Monday, he made a surprising appearance in Miami-Dade criminal court to admit to secretly — and illegally — reimbursing employees for some $10,000 in campaign donations to local politicians over the past several years.

In a deal worked out in advance with prosecutors, the former longtime leader of one of South Florida’s largest charities pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor count of making a campaign contribution in the name of another. Miami-Dade Judge Fred Seraphin, granted Pastrana, 74, a “withhold of adjudication,” meaning no criminal conviction will appear on his record.

Pastrana was “deeply apologetic,” said his attorney, Ben Kuehne. “It was his own personal error intended to assist good public officials who serve the community.”

The plea comes two months after Pastrana — who earned more than $600,000 a year as the president of Goodwill, which relies on government contracts for some of its business — stepped down after nearly five decades with the nonprofit.

Pastrana retired in March, while Miami-Dade prosecutors and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement were quietly investigating the allegations. Goodwill immediately named his replacement: David Landsberg, former publisher of The Miami Herald.

As part of the plea deal, Pastrana must wear a GPS ankle monitor for 90 days and report his whereabouts to corrections officials. He also must contribute $10,000 to a charitable organization, plus another $10,000 to the State Attorney’s Office.

State Attorney’s and FDLE investigators stumbled upon the crime during the course of a probe into Miami Commissioner Wilfredo Gort, which resulted in no charges.

According to Miami-Dade prosecutors, Pastrana admitted that he asked employees to contribute to local politicians.

“He indicated that some of the candidates who they donated to helped Goodwill Industries in times of need and near collapse and he felt it was a moral obligation,” according to the state’s final report on the case.

Those who contributed were Goodwill’s assistant to the CEO, the operations manager, the vice president of service contracts and the senior vice president, as well as several of their relatives, according to prosecutors.

“Pastrana testified that he did not tell his employees that it was against the law and that they did what they did ‘out of respect for me,’” according to a final memo by Tim VanderGiesen, head of the State Attorney’s Public Corruption Unit.

Pastrana used his own money, not Goodwill’s, to reimburse the employees over at least the past four years, according to authorities.

Prosecutors agreed to the plea deal because Pastrana had no prior criminal history, he cooperated fully and the violations amounted to “a lapse in judgment in a long and distinguished career.”

Investigators pored through financial records and interviewed Goodwill employees, and eventually Pastrana himself. In all, state and federal candidates received as much as $10,000 from Pastrana’s employees over the course of the past four years.

Those contribution went to at least six candidates: Miami Commissioners Willy Gort and Angel Gonzalez, Miami-Dade Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, Florida state Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, former Florida state Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla and former U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek.

Under his own name, Pastrana also donated $3,500 to Miami-Dade County candidates since 2004, campaign finance records show. His wife, Teresita J. Pastrana, donated $500. Dennis Pastrana also donated $17,000 to state candidates and parties since 1999.

The chairman of Goodwill South Florida’s board, Joe Lacher, said in a statement Monday that “this unfortunate personal matter does not change his excellent track record and decades of leadership.”

“I have known Dennis Pastrana for many years and the misdemeanor campaign law violation reported today reflects a sad moment of poor personal judgment that should not overshadow the long history of his stellar performance with Goodwill Industries of South Florida,” he said.

Founded in 1959, Goodwill Industries of South Florida provides rehabilitation, on-the-job training, work experience, job placement and other services for people with special needs and disabilities.

By the late 1970s, its donation centers were filthy and its administration was in disarray. It was in the worst shape of any of the branches across the United States, losing about $300,000 each year. The financial woes were so bad that the nonprofit laid off 53 of its severely disabled workers just before Christmas 1978.

Pastrana, who had headed Goodwill in Milwaukee and worked for the national headquarters in Washington, was tasked with cleaning up the South Florida operation in 1979.

He cleaned house by replacing key staff, generating new service contracts, developing training programs and renovating rundown thrift shops. He turned the agency’s books from red to black and found job placements for hundreds of people a year.

Today, South Florida’s Goodwill earns nearly $100 million in revenue each year, while employing 2,500 people with special needs and providing programs and services for another 5,000. Overall, Goodwill operates 11 businesses, including a new industrial laundry near Liberty City that employs 200 people.

Goodwill also has had a long-standing business relationship with the Miami Herald, which employs its workers to insert advertising circulars into the company’s newspapers and other publications. Another major part of its operation: making military apparel and U.S. flags for the government.

Goodwill came under scrutiny last year for paying some of its disabled workers far less than minimum wage — a gap that’s allowed as part of a federal program — while simultaneously paying its executive six-figure salaries.

As president of the South Florida branch, Pastrana was well compensated, earning $612,656 in 2012, including benefits, incentives and retirement.

Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.

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