Education

Higher-Ed Hustle: Florida lawmaker employed by for-profit college lobbied board

Braynon says he was unaware when he appeared before the physical therapy board that his school was starting a program
Braynon says he was unaware when he appeared before the physical therapy board that his school was starting a program

Sen. Oscar Braynon II introduced himself as just an interested lawmaker — interested enough to drive all the way to Gainesville.

At a February meeting of Florida’s Board of Physical Therapy, held in Gainesville’s Best Western Gateway Grand, Braynon stood up to speak about a controversial issue: colleges offering unaccredited physical therapy assistant programs. The Miami Gardens Democrat was no expert on the topic, as he had to ask board members to explain how college accreditation works.

But Braynon was sure of this much: The Florida Legislature wanted students from unaccredited physical therapy assistant programs to get licensed. It didn’t matter that the physical therapy board was concerned that unaccredited programs might be of poor quality, and pose a threat to public safety.

Braynon, who is set to become Democratic Leader next year, told the board that the Legislature’s goal is “to allow access to people” from additional schools to take the license exam.

“It’s to sit for the test,” Braynon said.

What Braynon never told the board: He was employed as “senior vice president of government and senior relations” by a for-profit college, the University of Southernmost Florida. And that college was about to unveil its own unaccredited program. Getting the Board of Physical Therapy to go along on licensing was essential to his boss’ bottom line.

Eleven days after Braynon’s trip to Gainesville, USMF sent out a news release that it was “excited to announce the launch of its Associate of Science in Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) program.” The program is currently available at the Jacksonville campus, and tuition is $40,000, according to the website of USMF, which also operates in Coral Gables.

When questioned about his Gainesville appearance, Braynon wrote to the Herald in an e-mail, “The University of Southernmost Florida does not and has never had a physical therapist or a physical therapist assistant program.”

After he was referred to the USMF website, Braynon wrote “with the many programs offered at USMF and my focus being on building community relationships for the university in South Florida, I was unaware that PTA was a major offered at the Jacksonville campus.”

Sitting state lawmakers don’t usually attend Board of Physical Therapy meetings. Braynon’s appearance may have violated the Florida Constitution, which states: “No member of the legislature shall personally represent another person or entity for compensation during term of office before any state agency other than judicial tribunals.”

Braynon told the Herald that USMF didn’t ask him to go, and “at no point did I advocate for or against any one particular issue.”

Braynon’s employer, USMF, is owned by Dade Medical College, and the two schools share the same Coral Gables corporate address. Dade Medical is one of Florida’s most politically influential for-profit colleges. The college not only donates to campaigns, but has also steered jobs or contracts to nearly a dozen South Florida elected officials.

A recent Miami-Herald investigation, Higher-Ed Hustle, highlighted how for-profit colleges have used extensive political connections to fuel their growth. Nearly one in five Florida students now attends a for-profit school.

It was Dade Medical that pushed in 2013 for state lawmakers to create the legal loophole allowing for unaccredited physical therapy assistant programs in the first place.

Every other state requires these programs to be accredited. An influential Republican lawmaker from Miami, Rep. Carlos Trujillo, sponsored that 2013 legislation. Later that year, the Herald reported that Trujillo’s sister-in-law was receiving free tuition at Dade Medical.

After the Board of Physical Therapy was addressed by Braynon and also Dade Medical’s attorney — who threatened a lawsuit — it chose to allow the school’s students to take the license test. But board members weren’t happy about it.

“The standard of proving that you have a quality program was circumvented through a political process,” board member Kay Tasso said at the February meeting.

In a statement, USMF said Braynon was hired in January — one month before the Gainesville meeting. The college declined to reveal his salary.

“We hired Oscar Braynon, not Senator Braynon, and he was hired because we needed someone that truly understood our community and the diverse pockets that comprise it,” wrote Jorge Alvarez, dean of academic and community affairs. “Oscar fits that bill better than anyone. The fact that he is a senator is irrelevant to the work that he does here at our institution, and it should not be held against him as a professional that he is an elected official.”

Public records show that Braynon’s new bosses sent at least one communication to his taxpayer-funded Senate staff.

A Jan. 22 e-mail written by a Dade Medical College lobbyist to Braynon’s legislative assistant, Katia Saint Fleur, asks for help in sprucing up the USMF website.

“Hi hot stuff,” wrote Elizabeth Martinez, Dade Medical vice president of community and governmental relations. “Can you work on that ‘welcome letter’ from the Senator for me?”

The e-mail continued: “We are revamping the USMF website (http://usmf.edu/) and we will be adding a COMMUNITY tab where Jorge and I will have our BIOs talking about our involvement in the community [from charity work to sites to govt stuff and how it all relates] and wanted his letter to kick-off that page so it could be just a basic intro about him and why it’s so important to get involved and how public administration plays a role and how it’s all inter-related.”

Martinez signed the e-mail with “pretty please” — and a smiley-face.

Dade Medical’s political influence remains strong even though majority owner Ernesto Perez faces pending criminal charges of perjury and providing false information through a sworn statement — allegedly to conceal other criminal arrests in his past.

Perez, listed as CEO of USMF in state records, is also the target of a separate ongoing criminal probe into possible campaign finance violations. Earlier this month, auditors with the U.S. Department of Education paid a surprise visit to Dade Medical.

They stayed for several days.

If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.

William Quillen, former Board of Physical Therapy member

Florida’s constitutional prohibition on lawmakers lobbying state agencies dates back to 1976. It was part of Florida’s “Sunshine Amendment,” which also created Florida’s ethics commission. The amendment was approved by nearly 80 percent of Florida voters.

At least one Tallahassee lawmaker has gotten in trouble for breaking the rule: In the mid-1990s, then-state Rep. John Thrasher was found guilty by the ethics commission because he spoke on behalf of the Florida Medical Association at a meeting of a Department of Business and Professional Regulation medical board. In that case, Thrasher twice disclosed that he was representing the FMA — and Thrasher said the board invited him to speak — but Thrasher still received a reprimand letter from the House speaker.

Thrasher is now president of Florida State University.

Ben Wilcox, a research director with the watchdog group Integrity Florida, explained the reason for the Constitution’s lobbying ban: “There’s all sorts of implied threats when you have a situation like that, the agency’s budget depends upon the Legislature, and when you have a legislator appearing before that body and asking for favorable treatment, the implication is if they don’t get the favorable treatment, there may be some sort of a threat down the road to the agency’s funding.”

The February meeting that Braynon attended was particularly tense. Board members said physical therapy accreditation, which is done by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education, or CAPTE, is an important safeguard to make sure practitioners are properly trained.

09-27-BraydonDadeMedical

At the meeting, Larry Harris, an assistant attorney general who advises the physical therapy board, told board members, “I understand the conundrum that you feel yourselves to be in, with your duties to protect the public, but at the same time, the Legislature has spoken. You work for them.”

One board member — William Quillen, director of the physical therapy program at the University of South Florida — resigned two days later in protest.

Reached last week by the Herald, Quillen said he wasn’t surprised to hear that Braynon worked for Dade Medical College’s affiliate school. Back in February, he said, the senator’s comments showed a lack of understanding on the accreditation issue, and “it was clear that he was carrying the water for Dade Medical College.”

“If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck,” Quillen said. “I don’t think any of my colleagues on the board thought that he was there just as an interested legislator.”

Instead of hiring so many politicians, Quillen said, Dade Medical could have used that money to hire first-rate faculty, and gotten its physical therapy assistant program accredited.

In August, the physical therapy board fired off an angry letter to Braynon. The letter pointed out that the results were starting to come in from the licensing exams taken by Dade Medical College students.

They weren’t good.

Between January and August of this year, according to the board’s letter, 76 Dade Medical students took the license test. Only 27 (about 36 percent) had passed.

Dade Medical’s results are so poor they’re bringing down Florida’s average, the board complained. So far this year, Florida’s passage rate average is 77.78 percent. But if you filter out the Dade Medical students, Florida’s rate shoots up to 87 percent, which is in line with the national average.

“Members of the Florida Board of Physical Therapy Practice are extremely concerned about the ethical and legal implications of the quality of non-CAPTE accredited PTA programs and the education, preparation, and performance of these candidates,” the board wrote.

Braynon, in a follow-up email sent to the Herald on Saturday morning, said he has looked at the test score results, along with the concerns raised by the physical therapy board. Braynon wrote that he is now “not in agreement” with his for-profit college employer on the issue of accreditation.

“I believe that there is a difference between CAPTE accredited schools and non CAPTE accredited schools,” he wrote, adding that he plans to sponsor legislation allowing the Board of Physical Therapy to inspect PTA programs.

Even for those Dade Medical students who pass the license test, there is an uncertain future. The federal government allows only graduates of CAPTE-approved physical therapy assistant programs to bill Medicare patients. Because Dade Medical’s graduates are unable to be paid through Medicare — in a state full of retirees — several large hospitals have already stated they won’t hire these students.

Some former Dade Medical students say they were deceived by the school when they enrolled, and misleadingly told the school was “fully accredited.” After taking out thousands of dollars in loans, students would belatedly find out about the term “CAPTE” and how not having the CAPTE seal of approval is a big deal.

When Mamoune Julien Louis enrolled in the physical therapy assistant program at Dade Medical’s West Palm Beach campus, she said the school’s recruiters promised a good-quality program and didn’t warn her it was unaccredited by CAPTE. The school had Julien Louis sign a written disclosure form that stated Dade Medical graduates had not yet been approved to take the license test, or practice in the field. But Julien Louis said the recruiter went over everything quickly without explaining the details.

“Sign this, sign this, sign this,” is how Julien Louis said the process went. Julien Louis is Haitian American and her first language is Creole. Many of Dade Medical’s students are immigrants whose first language is Spanish or Creole.

The disclosure form she signed is full of legal terminology. It didn’t mention that Dade Medical graduates can’t bill Medicare.

Two months into the program, Julien Louis said one of her classmates started talking about the program not being accredited. Concerned, all the students in the program asked for a meeting with the campus director, Julien Louis said.

“He said it’s not about the CAPTE . . . we’re gonna find jobs,” Julien Louis said. She said the campus director also boasted that he had “contacts” with employers.

A few months later, in March, Julien Louis said a classmate found detailed information from the Florida Physical Therapy Association about what CAPTE accreditation meant, and how it was necessary to treat Medicare patients, and probably Medicaid patients as well. The classmate printed copies for everyone.

Julien Louis dropped out — joined by four of her classmates. But by then she had amassed about $13,000 in loans.

On her withdrawal form, she wrote this reason: “School not CAPTE and non-CAPTE school graduates cannot work with Medicare and Medicaid.”

Julien Louis sent an e-mail to Gov. Rick Scott, complaining that she just found out her program is unaccredited — seven months after enrolling. Julien Louis wrote that her Dade Medical credits won’t transfer to other schools, and the experience left her stressed and depressed.

Scott’s office forwarded the complaint to the Commission for Independent Education, which regulates for-profit schools and whose board is dominated by for-profit college executives.

The school’s response to the CIE: “Dade Medical College has and continues to truthfully advertise its PTA program.”

Dade Medical wrote that it makes no guarantees to students about job placement. And the school said its enrollment agreements have been revised to include a disclosure that “Medicare billing regulations require graduation from a CAPTE accredited program.”

The CIE dismissed the case with no discipline against the school.

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