Miami-Dade County

Dade Medical College’s Homestead makeover scuttled

For Ernesto Perez’s increasingly troubled educational empire, it was the Homestead piece that was the first to crumble.

On Tuesday, Homestead’s City Council killed a planned land sale to the Perez-owned Dade Medical College. The 5-2 vote came after weeks of damaging revelations about Perez’s for-profit school.

Perez was a conspicuous no-show. The land deal in question would have allowed Perez to buy 19 city properties in downtown Homestead — with the college leader paying 38 percent of what the land is worth.

Homestead’s city council unanimously approved the sale two years ago — believing Perez’s promise that an expanded Dade Medical presence would enliven their sleepy downtown. Dade Medical already has a Homestead campus but Perez said the additional land would mean more students and more spin-off businesses.

What wasn’t known at the time: Perez had hired the wife of Homestead’s mayor as his real estate consultant.

Neither Perez nor then-Mayor Steve Bateman disclosed the conflict. Bateman, meanwhile, aggressively pushed the Dade Medical sale, short-circuiting city efforts to negotiate a better deal.

Homestead Vice Mayor Stephen Shelley, one of those who supported canceling the sale, called the project forever “tainted” by Bateman’s actions. The former mayor was arrested on unrelated corruption charges in August.

“We’ve been dealing with some pretty big issues,” Shelley said “To lose [voters’] confidence and to lose their faith is a big deal.”

In recent weeks, The Herald reported that Perez’s college gave free tuition to the sister-in-law of Miami state Rep. Carlos Trujillo. That undisclosed gift happened at the same time that Trujillo used a last-minute legislative amendment to weaken accreditation requirements in a way that financially benefits Dade Medical.

The tuition freebie for Trujillo was but the latest example of Perez’s attempts to cultivate political influence — a strategy that often included Dade Medical placing elected officials on the company payroll. Close to a dozen local politicians either took jobs with Perez or received payment in some way.

Newly obtained documents also show that Perez hired Paul Hawkes, former chief judge of the First District Court of Appeal. Hawkes, who resigned in 2011 over his role in lobbying for a lavishly appointed courthouse, has filed legal documents with the Florida Board of Physical Therapy related to the new law that Trujillo passed. Hawkes is pushing the board to enforce the new, weaker accreditation standards as loosely as possible.

One damaging issue for Perez is that his criminal past has become public knowledge. Perez was arrested in October for repeatedly lying on government forms to hide his criminal record, including a 1990 conviction for a sex crime involving a minor and a 2002 arrest for aggravated battery at a Miami bar.

Perez has pleaded not guilty to his current charges, which are two counts of perjury, a misdemeanor, and one count of providing false information through a sworn statement, which is a third-degree felony. He resigned as Dade Medical CEO after his arrest, but remains the college’s majority owner.

Dade Medical Vice President Jorge Alvarez complained that unfair news coverage of Perez and the college was influencing the city’s decision.

In Tuesday’s vote, council members Jimmie Williams III and Elvis Maldonado were the only two to support Perez. Both have received campaign contributions from Perez. After the vote, Maldonado provided a reporter with a written statement that he still supported the “vision” of the college’s redevelopment plans, and didn’t think Perez should be disqualified because of his “personal issues”

The city was only able to opt out of the land sale because of a convenient accident — Dade Medical’s two-year purchase agreement expired without the college fulfilling the city’s requirements to close on the deal. Those requirements were modest, and included Perez submitting approved plans for 25,000 square feet of either retail, classroom or medical space.

On Tuesday, Dade Medical asked for a six-month extension to close on the sale. By rejecting that extension, Homestead’s council effectively nixed the whole agreement.

Before the vote, Dade Medical officials pointed out that the college still has a few weeks before the actual expiration date. They said the college would race to get all the needed approvals — even if that meant the city ended up with a project that was poorly designed.

“We don’t believe it’s physically possible for them to get their approvals in time,” said City Manager George Gretsas.