Crime

Dade Medical College owner charged with illegally shuttering school

Last November, Dade Medical College owner Ernesto Perez was taken into custody after agreeing to a plea deal with prosecutors at Miami-Dade criminal courthouse. On Wednesday, he surrendered to new charges of closing the school without giving proper notice to the state or students.
Last November, Dade Medical College owner Ernesto Perez was taken into custody after agreeing to a plea deal with prosecutors at Miami-Dade criminal courthouse. On Wednesday, he surrendered to new charges of closing the school without giving proper notice to the state or students. adiaz@miamiherald.com

Ernesto Perez, the owner of the now-shuttered Dade Medical College, has been slapped with new criminal charges – this time for improperly closing the for-profit school one year ago.

Prosecutors charged Perez with two misdemeanor counts relating to the abrupt closure of the school’s eight Florida campuses, which had 2,000 students and 400 employees.

Perez, who surrendered Wednesday afternoon, was charged under a state law that requires that a school owner notify Florida’s Commission for Independent Education at least 30 days before its doors close. According to investigators, Perez made the decision on noon on Oct. 30, 2015, then notified staff and students via e-mail four hours later. The commission learned one hour after that.

Dade Medical College also did not complete a “written closure plan” mandated by law, which would have detailed training for students left in a lurch, information on refunds to those pupils and how academic records would be sent to the commission.

The students and staff were “irreparably harmed” by Dade Medical College’s “precipitous closing,” Miami-Dade State Attorney’s investigator Robert Fielder wrote in an arrest warrant.

“Those students who placed their trust in Ernesto Perez and these two educational institutions, now have debts instead of degrees,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said in a statement.

The charges were another blow for Perez, who once sat on the state commission and ran the lucrative college and its smaller affiliate, the University of Southernmost Florida. But Perez came under law-enforcement scrutiny and was the subject of a Miami Herald investigation that highlighted how Florida's for-profit colleges have used political connections to fuel their growth.

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.

In November 2015, Perez pleaded guilty after prosecutors accused him of illegally bundling $159,000 in campaign contributions to various politicians. He agreed to serve two months of house arrest and three years of probation, as well as paying $150,000 to law enforcement and $50,000 in charitable donations.

Wednesday’s arrest does not affect his probation because the alleged crimes took place before Perez accepted the plea deal. The new charges are second-degee misdemeanors, which are punishable by up to 60 days in jail.

Dade Medical College, struggling financially after increased scrutiny from federal officials over government money being given to students, shut its doors in October 2015 and almost immediately came under investigation by the education commission.

Three months later, the commission ruled that the school had indeed closed improperly and referred the case to the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office.

The decision to charge was applauded by Miami state Rep. José Javier Rodríguez, who has criticized the commission for not responding aggressively enough to the crisis caused by Dade Medical’s collapse.

“The case of Dade Medical College is so extreme on so many levels that I think [the arrest] sends the message that the law needs to be enforced and strengthened,” he said. “We're talking about students and employees' lives on the line.”

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