One week ago, Dade Medical College owner Ernesto Perez was drawing a $431,999 salary and running six campuses spread across the state.
On Tuesday, Perez found himself in handcuffs, flanked by a wall of TV news cameras.
The humbling ordeal followed the Friday closure of his for-profit college empire. And the subsequent filing of criminal charges that he illegally bundled more than $159,000 in campaign contributions to politicians.
At Miami’s Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building, Perez turned himself in to authorities. The new charges are on top of pending perjury charges, from 2013, that remain unresolved.
Spreading around political cash was Perez’s calling card — now, it has become part of his undoing. And although Tallahassee politicians passed laws that helped Dade Medical, such as weakening academic quality standards, none of that was enough to keep his college afloat. The combination of mounting debts and heightened scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Education led to Friday’s school collapse, which displaced about 2,000 students.
During the school’s heyday, Perez was influential enough to secure a sit-down meeting with Gov. Rick Scott. He traveled to Tallahassee in a chartered plane. He drove around downtown Coral Gables in a silver Bentley.
Perez is now “liquidating some long-held assets,” his defense attorney, Michael Band, told Circuit Judge Stacy Glick in a Tuesday court hearing.
The reason: to cover the roughly $200,000 in court costs and payments expected to be part of an upcoming plea deal.
Both Perez and Band declined to comment.
In Tuesday’s arrest affidavit, Michael Watson, an investigator with the State Attorney’s Office Public Corruption Unit Task Force, wrote that Perez repeatedly prodded his employees to write campaign contribution checks. Perez would then reimburse his employees for the amount — in violation of state law. It’s a felony to do this multiple times, and Perez is charged with both felony and misdemeanor counts of making contributions “in the name of another.”
Politicians who received the improper campaign checks included unsuccessful Republican state Senate candidate John Couriel, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Juan Zapata, Hialeah Gardens Mayor Yioset De La Cruz, and Miami Lakes Vice Mayor Manny Cid, according to the affidavit, which provides only a sampling.
Reached by phone, De La Cruz said he hasn’t been contacted by investigators. The mayor said he barely knows Perez, and had no idea Dade Medical had supported his campaign in 2012.
“He doesn’t have a business in the city. He’s never done any business in the city,” De La Cruz said. “He’s never met with me for anything.”
“I don’t see every check that comes in,” De La Cruz said. “It’s a lot of checks . . . hundreds of checks, so I don’t necessarily know every person or recognize every person that gives me a check.”
The arrest affidavit says that during the past several years, “over $750,000 in political contributions can be attributed to Perez through a mix of lawful and unlawful contributions. Perez also employs past and present elected officials, directly and indirectly at DMC.”
Illegally bundling contributions allows donors to exceed legal limits on how much a person can give.
A recent Miami Herald investigation, Higher-Ed Hustle, highlighted how Florida’s for-profit colleges have used political connections to fuel their growth. Dade Medical gave jobs or contractual payments to Hialeah state Sen. Rene Garcia, Miami Gardens state Sen. Oscar Braynon, Miami state Rep. Carlos Trujillo, and the wife of then-Homestead Mayor Steve Bateman, among others.
Some Dade Medical students have complained that the school’s health-career training was so poor that it put them at risk of hurting patients after they graduated. In 2014, only 13 percent of graduates at the Hollywood campus passed the nursing license exam. At the Miami campus, 44 percent passed.
Perez’s criminal cases don’t carry the risk of serious jail time. Miami-Dade prosecutors are planning a plea deal that would have him spend only one night locked up, followed by two months of house arrest and nearly three years of probation and 160 hours of community service. The plea agreement would settle the new charges along with the 2013 case.
With Perez, prosecutors say they are just following normal sentencing guidelines. But a pair of former Dade Medical students who attended Tuesday’s hearing left the courthouse frustrated.
“A slap on the wrist,” complained student Rosa Somoza.
“He kind of paid politicians to kind of look the other way, so that nobody would investigate his school,” said student Marium Martinez. “It’s not right.”
The proposed plea agreement was originally set to happen Tuesday, but was postponed for two weeks because some technical details needed to be worked out.
In the arrest documents, investigators alleged that Perez not only made illegal campaign contributions, but also tried to cover them up.
When Dade Medical reimbursed employees, it would give them a slightly higher amount, the arrest document states. For example, an employee who wrote a check for $500 might get $502 in return.
“It appears the checks were made out for an amount not matching the original contribution in an effort to conceal the fact that the check was a reimbursement for a campaign contribution,” the affidavit says.
In a statement to investigators, Dade Medical’s former comptroller, Justin Garcia, said he was told by purchasing/accounting employee Mark Cabrales that “Ernesto needs some political checks. Write out the check and the amount.” Garcia said he was told that he would later be reimbursed.
Cabrales is also being charged with a misdemeanor count of making a contribution in another person’s name.
For the past two years, Perez has been battling separate charges of perjury, a misdemeanor, and providing false information through a sworn statement, which is a third-degree felony.
In that case, Perez is accused of repeatedly failing to disclose prior criminal arrests and/or convictions when filling out government forms. In the early 1990s, when Perez was in a rock band touring in Wisconsin, he pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of battery and exposing his genitals to a 15-year-old fan. He spent six months in jail. In 2002, he was arrested in Miami for aggravated battery, but avoided jail through a pretrial diversion program.
Perez’s musician background made him an unconventional college operator. Perez never attended college himself.
“How far did you go in school?” Judge Glick asked Perez on Tuesday.
“Ninth grade,” he responded.