Amid criminal charges, CEO of Dade Medical College resigns

As a former heavy metal musician/high school dropout, Ernesto Perez was an unlikely college president. And Perez did more than just run Dade Medical College, he started the whole thing from scratch.

But this week, faced with pending criminal charges that once again dredged up embarrassing details from his past, Perez resigned as Dade Medical’s president and CEO. Perez founded the school with his father — a retired physician — in 1999.

On Friday, prosecutors charged Perez with two counts of perjury, a misdemeanor, and one count of providing false information through a sworn statement, which is a third-degree felony.

All three criminal charges against Perez stem from his repeated failure to disclose prior criminal arrests and/or convictions when filling out government forms. Perez has a 1990 arrest for second-degree sexual assault of a child, and a 2002 arrest for aggravated battery. The earlier crime, which occurred while Perez was in a rock band touring in Wisconsin, involved a 15-year-old fan. Perez pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of battery and exposing his genitals to a child. He spent six months in jail.

State Sen. Rene Garcia, who is also Dade Medical’s vice president of external affairs, said he believed Perez’s decision was motivated by a desire to avoid hurting the college.

“The college is bigger than any individual,” Garcia said. “He doesn’t want this to put a black cloud over the college until he resolves it.”

It was unclear Wednesday what role Perez will have in the company going forward, such as retaining his ownership stake in the college. But the days of Perez functioning as the public face of Dade Medical may be over for now. Perez did not answer calls to his cell phone on Wednesday, and it was not accepting messages.

In recent years, Perez’s educational empire has grown dramatically, swelling to six campuses and more than 2,000 students (with 500-plus employees). Once limited to Miami-Dade County, Dade Medical now has campuses as far away as West Palm Beach and Jacksonville.

The college has been doing so well financially that last year Dade Medical acquired the University of Southernmost Florida, a four-year school based in Jacksonville. Former General Electric executive Steve Kerr was hired as the new university’s president, with Former Coral Gables Mayor Don Slesnick brought on as the university’s dean of public administration.

Slesnick on Wednesday said he fully understood Perez’s decision to resign.

“It was probably the best for him and for the school,” Slesnick said. “Being under the gun as he is right now…he needs to take care of business for himself and for his family.”

Even before his recent arrest, Perez was a controversial figure. Some of Dade Medical’s former students say they regret their decision to enroll, as they complain that the college’s high-priced degree programs are of questionable quality. U.S. Department of Education statistics show that only about half of Dade Medical’s former students are able start paying down the principal on their student loans three years later — raising questions about whether students end up in worse financial shape after attending the institution.

Prosecutors have also been scrutinizing Perez’s ties to former Homestead Mayor Steve Bateman. Perez hired Bateman’s wife as a real estate broker while at the same time seeking to purchase land from the city at a deeply discounted price. Bateman was arrested in August on corruption charges that did not directly involve Perez.