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Ex-Broward teachers union chief charged with theft, fraud

Broward’s 11,000-member teacher’s union emerged as a portrait in dysfunction on Tuesday — its longtime leader in handcuffs, its finances a mess, and its reputation deeply stained.

The morning began with former Broward Teacher’s Union President Pat Santeramo surrendering to authorities. Santeramo, a former teacher himself who for 10 years led the large and influential union, faces a laundry list of criminal charges that include racketeering, grand theft, campaign contribution violations, and money laundering.

Prosecutors say Santeramo used union funds as his own personal piggy bank — arranging kickbacks with a union-hired maintenance contractor, fraudulently obtaining $121,848 in sick and vacation time he was not entitled to, and charging union credit cards for his own personal expenses.

Santeramo, according to a 33-page arrest warrant, also engineered a string of illegal campaign contributions that involved BTU members writing checks to candidates and then being reimbursed with union funds. Candidates receiving the checks included former U.S. presidential candidate Hilary Clinton and Florida gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink.

Santeramo’s kickback scheme included multiple contracts awarded to Coral Springs-based Marstan Construction for services such as ant extermination and light bulb replacement at the union’s headquarters building. Santeramo repeatedly billed the union for these expenses — a pattern that Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti described as obviously suspicious.

“I didn’t think anybody could be infected with that many ants,” Lamberti said. Santeramo’s kickbacks, Lamberti said, “would be comical if they weren’t so criminal.”

The head of Marstan Construction, David Esposito, has been granted immunity from criminal charges in the Santeramo case, in exchange for cooperating with prosecutors.

In a statement, Santeramo’s attorney Benedict Kuehne said, “At no time has Pat acted dishonestly or in violation of his sacred trust to the teachers of Broward County. Unfortunately in today’s troubling political times, the righteous cause of organized labor is under assault.”

The origins of prosecutors’ investigation into Santeramo came from suspicious teachers and BTU staffers. When the cash-strapped union laid off four of its own staff members last year, the financial questions grew louder.

Where was the BTU spending its money? Why was it broke?

By December, Santeramo had relinquished his post, with John Tarka, a retired president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, assuming the job on an interim basis.

Former BTU field staff representative Jerrod Neal, one of those laid off last year because of budget shortfalls, said it had been clear to him for some time that Santeramo was a problematic leader. When asked to describe his former boss, Neal, who spent more than seven years at the union, used just one word: “Arrogant.”

Neal said he had personally witnessed Santeramo’s questionable spending of union funds.

“I was there when people were coming, changing light bulbs, and was wondering ‘Why is this happening?’” Neal said. “A lot of that stuff we could pretty much do on our own, if we needed to.”

Tuesday’s criminal charges follow months of turmoil at the union, beginning last August when a small contingent of the union’s 27-member executive board pressed the Florida Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers to look into its finances.

The AFT conducted an audit of 2009-11, and its findings of possible mismanagement - including salary overpayments to Santeramo and three other union leaders, as well as $128,634 in unexplained credit card charges - prompted four board members to call for Santeramo’s expulsion.

In November, the union’s executive board voted to temporarily hand over the day-to-day operations of the union to the AFT and strip Santeramo of his powers. He resigned on Dec. 6, just before a scheduled hearing before the BTU board and dues-paying members on whether he should keep the job.

Among the charges filed by the state attorney’s office: that Santeramo diverted about $165,500 in union funds to himself between 2001 and January 2012 through an "invoice-kickback" scheme with Marstan Construction.

In one instance, Santeramo had the company bill BTU $89,295 for repairing the BTU building elevators. Marstan gave $20,000 of the union’s payment back to Santeramo in cash, investigators found.

Santeramo is also accused of making a series of illegal campaign contributions by having 25 individuals, including BTU officials, make donations to a variety of candidates for which he then reimbursed them with BTU funds. Several of them have pleaded no contest to misdemeanor campaign finance violations and adjudication was withheld, but Tarka — who appeared with law enforcement at a Tuesday’s news conference — wouldn’t say whether they will be suspended or removed. They are Ronney Virgillito, George Segna, Lynn Cavall, Bernette Schultz and Leonard Lee.

Robert Sutton, a high school math teacher who is also campaigning for a county commission seat, said allowing those convicted BTU members to stay on board only serves to preserve the “cloud of corruption” surrounding the union.

“They’re supposed to be representing us, negotiating for us, and they come into the negotiations with zero credibility because they have criminal charges behind them,” Sutton said.

Bond for Santeramo was set at $480,000. He has significant assets — including a vacation home in posh Martin County that he bought in 2007 for $574,000, Lamberti said. But to post bond, Santeramo will have to prove he has assets that are unconnected to his alleged criminal activity.

The vacation home, Lamberti said, was an example of how Santeramo financed a extravagant lifestyle by stealing from the teachers he was supposed to represent. Santeramo bought the house with a $274,000 down payment, Lamberti said, then paid off the 30-year mortgage in only three years.

Santeramo, a former middle school music and physical education teacher, rose through the ranks of the union’s leadership. He started as a union representative, then served as vice president, and, finally, president in 2001, when Tony Gentile was forced out after his arrest on charges that he tried to engage a teenager in an online relationship.

Santeramo left his union job with $174,538 in accrued sick leave and vacation time.