Miami lawmaker’s in-law gets tuition freebie at Dade Medical College

Dade Medical College's campus in Hollywood, Florida.
Dade Medical College's campus in Hollywood, Florida. Courtesy of Dade Medical College

Dade Medical College built its fast-growing empire with a healthy dose of political influence — the college founder has poured at least $170,000 into campaign contributions, and close to a dozen local politicians either took jobs at the college or benefited financially in some way.

The for-profit college’s political links, it turns out, also extend to elected officials’ families. At least two family members of powerful politicians have attended Dade Medical.

One of them, the sister-in-law of state Rep. Carlos Trujillo, is receiving free tuition, a source close to the family told the Miami Herald. That means she’s saving tens of thousands of dollars that students typically have to pay.

That sister-in-law declined to speak with a reporter who visited her home.

“No thanks,” she said, wagging her finger.

When Trujillo himself was questioned about the issue, he initially said he was “not aware” of whether the in-law was getting free tuition.

The next day, Trujillo took it upon himself to seek a legal opinion from the Florida House of Representatives’ general counsel, Daniel Nordby. In an e-mail to the Miami Herald, Trujillo wrote:

“I take my ethical obligations very seriously and want to ensure that I am always compliant with our conflict and reporting laws. Mr. Nordby confirmed to me that which I knew, namely that neither my sister-in-law’s attendance at Dade Medical College, nor her financial aid package, create any voting conflicts for me as she is neither an immediate family member as defined by the relevant Florida Statutes, and I have no knowledge about her financial-aid status. Therefore, there is no voting conflict nor improper gift in this instance.”

Two days later, in a follow-up interview, Trujillo was asked if he had spoken with his sister-in-law. Had he settled the question, once and for all, of whether she was getting free tuition?

Trujillo said he had not. Trujillo explained that he wouldn’t be asking his relative about it because doing so would be an invasion of her privacy.

“I have never asked anybody for a discount in anything,” Trujillo said. “I’m not going to dig into my sister-in-law’s personal finances. I would never ask her that question.”

Links to school

University of Miami law professor Anthony Alfieri, founder of the school’s Center for Ethics and Public Service, said politicians “should not be deliberately indifferent” to their relatives receiving gifts from special interests.

“Elected officials should act reasonably to investigate and prevent business practices or lobbying practices that may corrupt the political process,” Alfieri said.

The tuition issue is not Trujillo’s only link to Dade Medical. As an attorney, Trujillo performed legal work for the college, and earlier this year, the Miami Republican sponsored legislation that loosened the accrediting requirements for physical therapy assistant programs. Dade Medical offers a $35,050 physical therapy assistant associate degree, and the state law change enabled the college to rapidly expand its program to five different campuses. Under the old accrediting rules, Dade Medical would have had to start with one campus, and then expand little by little.

Trujillo’s legislation, which was tacked on as a last-minute amendment to an unrelated bill, could ultimately boost Dade Medical’s revenues by millions of dollars. Critics of the change, however, say Florida’s watered-down standards will leave students inadequately trained, and may ultimately put patient safety at risk. Additionally, under current law, graduates would not be able to bill Medicare for their services, a fact that could make obtaining employment problematic.

In pushing the bill, Trujillo says he didn’t have a conflict of interest because the new law doesn’t apply exclusively to Dade Medical — there are other schools it might benefit as well.

Nevertheless, Dade Medical’s vast political network has aroused the interest of the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office, which is scrutinizing the college and its founder, Ernesto Perez.

The other prominent local politician with a family connection to Dade Medical is Miami-Dade County Commission Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa. Sosa’s daughter attended the school’s nursing program and graduated a few months ago.

Sosa insisted her daughter paid the same tuition as any other student, and there was no favoritism shown to her family.

“Not at all. She owes a lot of money,” Sosa said. “I would never allow that.”

Dade Medical’s degree programs are quite expensive, and students in many cases could obtain the same degrees at a community college for a fraction of the cost. The vast majority of students at Dade Medical must borrow to pay the hefty tuition — typically amassing debts in the tens of thousands of dollars.

The school’s nursing program at its Miami and Hollywood campuses is currently on state probation because graduating students have such a poor record of passing the required licensing exam. So far this year, students at the Miami campus have a 34 percent passage rate, while Hollywood students have a 39 percent passage rate, according to Florida Board of Nursing records.

The nursing passage rate at Miami Dade College is nearly 77 percent. At Broward College, it’s 94 percent.

Until recently, questionable student outcomes did little to slow Dade Medical’s rapid growth. Over the past few years, the Coral Gables-based college swelled to six campuses that together enroll more than 2,000 students.

Man of influence

Thanks at least in part to his habit of cultivating and hiring politicians and writing campaign checks, Perez became a man of considerable influence. Last December, Perez flew to Tallahassee for a sit-down chat with Gov. Rick Scott. In 2009, Scott’s predecessor, Charlie Crist, appointed Perez to Florida’s Commission for Independent Education — an oversight body charged with monitoring for-profit schools.

But in filling out his annual appointment forms while serving on that commission, Perez twice failed to disclose his criminal past. Perez has a 1990 arrest for second-degree sexual assault of a child. Perez served six months in jail in that case, as he ultimately pleaded no contest to charges of battery and exposing his genitals to a child.

Perez also has a 2002 arrest for aggravated battery that involved an out-of-control bar fight at the Hard Rock Cafe in downtown Miami’s Bayside Marketplace. Perez — a former rock musician — was performing on stage that night and allegedly started a guitar-swinging melee with a man in the crowd. The man told police that Perez struck him in the head with his guitar — twice. Perez avoided jail time through a pre-trial diversion program, and he later got the arrest expunged, but on the expungement forms he again lied about his past and said he had no criminal record.

The repeated omissions about his past led to Perez being arrested last month on 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 CEO a few days later and pleaded not guilty to the charges. Dade Medical representatives told the Herald Perez is in the process of selling his majority ownership stake in the company.

Members of the college’s new leadership team said they know nothing about Trujillo’s relative getting free tuition. Perez did not answer repeated calls to his cell phone.

In his pending criminal case, Perez initially moved to hire Trujillo’s law firm, which had represented the college in the past. Trujillo is also a former Miami-Dade prosecutor. But days after the Herald asked Trujillo about the bill he sponsored in Tallahassee, Perez switched gears and decided to hire a different attorney.

Trujillo dismisses the criticism of Perez’s college. During a recent interview, Trujillo emphasized that Dade Medical fully discloses what its programs cost. Students, he said, should know up front what they’re responsible for.

“I don’t drive a Ferrari because I can’t afford one,” Trujillo said.