Miami-Dade politicians have repeatedly traveled to Harvard University for good-government training — and sent the bill to county taxpayers. But in trying to get the county to pay for his Harvard master’s degree in public administration, County Commissioner Juan Zapata appears to have gone too far.
On Aug 5, Miami-Dade County cut Zapata a check for $30,961, to be used for his Harvard tuition and fees. The money came from Zapata’s office account, and was blessed by County Attorney Robert Cuevas Jr., who wrote in an e-mail that same day that, under state law and county rules, “commissioners may utilize their office budget funds to cover expenses for travel and for training courses or education programs.”
But then Zapata’s fall semester took a turn for the worse.
News of the $30,961 check began to leak out. Earlier this week, Univision broke the story of Zapata attending Harvard on the public dime. The commissioner struggled to explain himself on camera to Univision investigative reporter Erika Carrillo, and at one point in the interview Zapata swallowed noticeably hard.
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Records show that as Zapata’s college money began to be scrutinized, he became angry with county budget staff, whom he blames for revealing the details.
“Yesterday it came to my attention that the budget office maliciously leaked this information in order to cause political embarrassment,” Zapata wrote in an Aug. 13 e-mail to Operating Budget Coordinator Barbara Galvez. “You all should be ashamed.”
In that e-mail, Zapata wrote that he didn’t want the county’s money anymore: “Please let me know how to reimburse the county for the full amount.”
Zapata has since paid back the county. The commissioner is often the harshest critic of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s administration. During one commission meeting this week, Zapata told Gimenez's finance chief, Ed Marquez, to “wipe that smirk off your face.”
In an interview, Zapata said his outspokenness has made him the target of a political smear campaign, and he accused the mayor's staff of leaking his tuition information.
“Everyone takes it so personally here when I challenge them,” he said. “Is there a political motivation or a political agenda behind this? Absolutely. That's what's feeding this.”
Gimenez spokesman Michael Hernandez responded:
“Mayor Gimenez is busy leading the day-to-day operations of a county government of 26,000 employees and a budget of $6.8 billion. He did not reveal information to any reporter.
“Rather than place blame for the use of taxpayer dollars to pay for his private education on Mayor Gimenez or county employees, Commissioner Zapata should blame the only person responsible for exercising such poor judgment — himself.”
Despite his initial acceptance of a $30,961 check from taxpayers, Zapata insists that he never meant for the county to shoulder the full cost of Harvard’s two-semester $55,692 masters-degree program.
Instead, Zapata said he was facing a deadline for the fall bill at the same time that he contemplated switching to a cheaper three-week Harvard program. Miami-Dade has paid for other county commissioners to attend that $12,400 “Senior Executives in State and Local Government” training.
Since Miami-Dade was already reimbursing commissioners for that program, Zapata said he decided to request the county to pay for the master’s bill and then he would reimburse Miami-Dade later. If he decided to enroll in the less-expensive executive program, he would cut a check for the difference, he said. If he stuck with the masters' program, he would cut a check for the entire amount.
“Maybe it was naive. The cleanest transaction was for the county to pay it. Then I would reimburse what was needed,” Zapata said. “How do I prove it? I don't know. I didn't sit there and share it with anybody.”
E-mail records obtained by the Herald, between Zapata’s office and county staff, make no mention of this being a temporary situation, or that Zapata would be paying back some or all of the funds. In the emails, Zapata’s staff is prodding budget employees to cut the $30,961 check by Harvard’s deadline.
“Commissioner Zapata asked me to follow up with one last question,” one of his staffers wrote on July 24. “Could the office budget route be used to cover his travel?”
Yes, the budget office replied, so long as Zapata deemed the travel “to be for the benefit of his district.”
When county commissioners go to Harvard at taxpayer expense, it’s usually for the shorter, cheaper, “Senior Executives” course. County Commission Chairman Jean Monestime recently attended that program, and said in a statement to the Herald: “I found the academic program offered by the Kennedy School of Government challenging, substantive, and enlightening. To the extent my capacity to make sound policy decisions has been improved, the county benefits, not just my district.”
Former County Commissioner Katy Sorenson attended the same three-week course in 2004, and told the Herald “it was a life-changing experience, really.”
Sorenson is now the founder, president and CEO of the Good Government Initiative at the University of Miami, and she said her three weeks at Harvard (at a cost of about $11,000) “provided the inspiration for me to start a local program.”
At Harvard, Sorenson said, the students studied issues like negotiating skills and dealing with diversity, while analyzing case studies and talking about the pressing issues in their hometown. More than a decade later, Sorenson said she still keeps a binder with her Harvard coursework.
Taxpayers benefit from financing such trips, she said.
“People want their elected officials to be smart and well informed,” Sorenson said, noting that county commissioners in Miami-Dade only make about $6,000 in annual salary.
But Sorenson was less supportive of taxpayers paying for a politician to get a full-fledged degree.
“I’m not sure a case can be made for that,” she said.
One thing is clear: a Harvard education, even if only for three weeks, shines on a politician’s resume. That’s particularly true in Miami, a city where Ivy League degrees aren’t as common as, say, Boston, New York or Washington, D.C.
Gimenez, in his official biography, includes this sentence: “In 1993, he completed the Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.”
Asked about that training, Gimenez’s office was quick to point out some differences from the Zapata controversy. For one, Gimenez wasn’t with the county — he was a city of Miami fire chief back then.
Most importantly: Gimenez got a scholarship from the National Fire Academy to attend.
“No taxpayer funds were used at any time to pay for coursework,” his office said.