Politicians and Dade Medical College’s Perez: friends to the end

Until the end, for-profit college operator Ernesto Perez was surrounded by politicians. Included in this photo at a ribbon-cutting five weeks ago: Perez, second from left; state Sen. Dwight Bullard, fourth from left; and, in back row at right, state Sen. Anitere Flores, state Sen. Rene Garcia, Coral Gables Vice Mayor Frank Quesada and state Sen. Oscar Braynon (obscured).
Until the end, for-profit college operator Ernesto Perez was surrounded by politicians. Included in this photo at a ribbon-cutting five weeks ago: Perez, second from left; state Sen. Dwight Bullard, fourth from left; and, in back row at right, state Sen. Anitere Flores, state Sen. Rene Garcia, Coral Gables Vice Mayor Frank Quesada and state Sen. Oscar Braynon (obscured). For the Herald

Five weeks before for-profit Dade Medical College collapsed, the liquor was still flowing.

It was open bar at a ribbon-cutting for a new outdoor terrace at Dade Medical’s smaller affiliate school, the University of Southernmost Florida. The location: downtown Coral Gables.

There were hors d’oeuvres. There was paella. And there were politicians.

Ernesto Perez, Dade Medical’s principal owner, donated big to scores of political campaigns, sometimes backing both candidates for the same seat. He steered jobs and contractual work to nearly a dozen local politicians, and invited them and their colleagues to events like this one. In those moments, Perez made it a point to shoot photos of himself with the politically powerful, which he liked to splash on the Internet and share on the school’s Facebook page.

The political prestige gave the college credibility, which raised the school’s profile, which helped to recruit more students. That, in turn, boosted profits, which allowed for even more political contributions, and even more influence. Prosecutors say Perez spent more than $750,000 on political contributions.

Perez’s school had luxury suites at Miami Heat games and Miami Dolphins games.

“If I was at a Heat game and ran into him, they might have handed me a wristband,” acknowledged state Sen Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, who also attended the September ribbon-cutting.

When Perez needed a favor, such as trying to get trucks banned from Krome Avenue, where his Homestead campus was located, he would charter a plane, invite a couple of politicians to join him and head to Tallahassee for a personal meeting with Gov. Rick Scott.

Meanwhile, many Dade Medical students were ending up with crippling loan debts and no career — at the Hollywood campus, only 13 percent of nursing students passed the license exam last year. Still, the politicians kept hovering.

Joining Bullard at the Sept. 24 ribbon-cutting were state Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, state Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, state Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, and Coral Gables Vice Mayor Frank Quesada.

Many of Perez’s political friends and allies are keeping a low profile now. Some of them ignored repeated requests for comment. Perez’s for-profit college empire abruptly went out of business on Oct. 30 — stiffing as many as 400 employees on their final paychecks. The roughly 2,000 students from Perez’s schools are now desperate and frustrated. Braynon and Garcia, who both took paychecks as Perez’s employees, have said they were surprised by the college’s meltdown.

Signs ignored

But there were telltale signs. The Miami Herald, whose reporter was barred at the door of the Coral Gables ribbon-cutting, had spent two years publishing stories that raised questions about Perez’s for-profit college empire. There were numerous student complaints that the quality of instruction was so poor that public health was being placed at risk.

There were also the questions about Perez himself. The Herald reported that Perez was under criminal investigation. Perez had also been previously arrested. There were still-pending 2013 charges for perjury, a 2002 arrest for aggravated battery, and in the early 1990s Perez spent six months in jail in Wisconsin after he pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of battery and exposing his genitals to a 15-year-old, all widely reported.

After the closure at the end of October, state prosecutors added a new charge: illegally bundling $159,000 in campaign contributions. Perez, a former rock musician who managed to build his college despite dropping out of school after ninth grade, is in the process of finalizing a plea deal with prosecutors.

Garcia earned $134,399 as Dade Medical’s senior VP of government and community relations, a position he held for seven years. Garcia left the job a couple of months ago, and so, technically, he didn’t have to attend the September ribbon-cutting. But he said there was nothing wrong with him deciding to show up anyway.

“You go and you cut the ribbon, and you’re there for support,” Garcia said. “Nothing more, nothing less.”

Quesada, the Gables commissioner, said his job is to promote businesses in the city’s downtown, and the fact that Perez was under criminal investigation at the time didn’t prove anything.

“I’m not judge and jury,” he said. “I’m going to go to their ribbon-cutting. I’m going to give that person or that entity the benefit of the doubt.”

Bullard said he went there just because he was in the neighborhood. The lawmaker said he knows of at least one Dade Medical student who successfully landed a nursing career. Still, he said that any students who feel defrauded by Perez’s schools should contact him for help.

“I’m not embracing the concept of exploitation via education,” he said.

Although I knew investigations were pending and what-not, I’d never really dug into the details.

state Sen. Dwight Bullard

Braynon, in an emailed statement, wrote: “I’m extremely concerned about the developments following the school’s closure, and the precarious situation the students now find themselves in.”

Flores did not answer her cellphone, nor respond to text messages.

During the past three years, as Perez was the subject of the perjury arrest and unfavorable media coverage, his school reaped more than $100 million in federal loans and Pell grants. Some students complained that the school lied to them about important issues — such as telling them that the physical therapy assistant program was accredited, when it wasn’t.

Because the program was unaccredited, several hospitals said they wouldn’t hire those graduates.

In yet another controversy reported in the Herald, Perez hired the wife of Homestead’s mayor — paying her more than $100,000 — at the same time that Mayor Steve Bateman was pushing for the sale of city land to Perez’s real estate affiliate, at a dramatic discount. Subsequently, Bateman was tried and sentenced to prison for an unrelated corruption case.

‘I did my job’

Garcia said he “never” saw any evidence that Dade Medical was deceiving students. Garcia said his job at the school was limited to finding hospitals and other healthcare facilities where students could do their clinical training, and he took it seriously.

“I did my job right, and I did it to help those students,” Garcia said. The state senator said he wasn’t a part of Dade Medical’s executive management team. Garcia said he has been trying to help the displaced students by staying in contact with Florida’s for-profit college oversight agency, the Commission for Independent Education. Garcia said he’s also been talking to another for-profit college about accepting students from Dade Medical.

Garcia said he hasn’t personally spoken to any students. The CIE, a regulatory agency whose board is dominated by representatives of the for-profit college industry, could provide no example of ever having disciplined a school because of a student complaint — despite fielding more than 2,200 complaints in the agency’s 14-year history. The CIE is required by Florida Department of Education rules to visit a school that closes, but a week after Dade Medical shut its doors, the CIE still hadn’t sent a staffer to talk to students in person.

A 2011 state audit faulted the CIE for three other instances in which it failed to visit a newly shuttered school. The Herald last week asked if it was again breaking its own rules.

“The rule says ‘as soon as practicable’ and does not specify a timeline for visiting the school,” responded Department of Education spokeswoman Cheryl Etters.

Perez himself is a former CIE board member. He served from 2009 to 2013 — stepping down shortly after his 2013 perjury arrest.

A recent Miami Herald investigation, Higher-Ed Hustle, highlighted how nearly one in five Florida students now attend a for-profit school. Tallahassee lawmakers, many of whom received campaign contributions from Perez and his associates, passed at least 15 laws that fueled the industry’s growth — weakening quality standards, reducing oversight, and stifling the growth of public community colleges, which offer many of the same programs at a far cheaper price.

One of those 15 laws was sponsored by Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican. Fresen’s legislation allowed failing nursing programs to keep operating for an additional year. Under the old rules, a nursing program with low passage rates on the license exam got placed on probation, and was shut down if it couldn’t raise its scores to near-average levels in two years. Fresen’s law gave low-scoring nursing programs a third year of probation, as long as they showed some progress.

Dade Medical used that third year of probation to keep its nursing program going at its Miami and Hollywood campuses — enrolling more students, and collecting more taxpayer-funded financial aid dollars.

In a text message response to the Herald, Fresen wrote that the law he spearheaded “has nothing to do with these students’ predicaments.”

The collapse of Dade Medical created a chaotic, confusing situation for students, who didn’t have immediate access to their transcripts. Those transcripts have limited value even once students receive them, since most traditional schools won’t accept credits from a for-profit school such as Dade Medical.

When students held a protest outside Perez’s home the weekend of the closing, he called police to have them shooed away. Students have been turning to a group Facebook page to share information and support.

Other for-profit colleges discovered the Facebook page and have used it to promote themselves, despite, in some cases, questionable track records of their own. The Institute of Healthcare Professions, which posted on the Dade Medical Facebook site, has been accused of fraud by both former students and an ex-employee, the Herald previously reported.

Former Dade Medical student Jeremy Frierson, who helps administer the Facebook page, said politicians who aided the for-profit college share the blame for what happened.

“If you’re helping out people that you know are screwing other people over, you’re just as bad as them,” Frierson said. “And you should face criminal charges as well.”

If you’re helping out people that you know are screwing other people over, you’re just as bad as them.

former Dade Medical student Jeremy Frierson

Although education is largely a state issue, some Miami-Dade county commissioners have tried to help Dade Medical students. Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Education last week, asking that Washington send someone to Miami-Dade County “to assist students in navigating their options so that they may make informed and sound decisions.” County Commission Chairman Jean Monestime urged students to contact the county’s Office of Consumer Protection, which is knowledgeable about school issues.

A few weeks before Dade Medical closed, county commissioners — in response to the Herald for-profit colleges investigation — beefed up the county’s “Deceptive Trade Practices” law. The new rules, sponsored by Monestime, allow the county to go after businesses, including schools, that fail to deliver what they promised, or that hide important facts about what they’re selling.

The county’s Office of Consumer Protection can be reached at 786-469-2300.

To date, the Legislature has taken no action to rein in Florida’s for-profit college abuses. For the second year in a row, Miami Democratic Rep. José Javier Rodríguez has filed a bill that would revoke the license of for-profit schools with the worst student loan default rates. Last year’s measure did not advance. This year’s version would also require schools to disclose more information to prospective students. Rodríguez has met resistance from some lawmakers who don’t want to regulate for-profits, but he hopes the Dade Medical College closure will serve as a catalyst.

“The Legislature absolutely bears some responsibility for the worst-case scenario that we see unfolding,” he said. “This is unfolding in my district, in my community.”

Miami Rep. Carlos Trujillo, an attorney who did legal work for Perez, in 2013 sponsored legislation that allowed unaccredited physical therapy assistant programs. No other state allows for unaccredited programs, and Trujillo has acknowledged that Dade Medical lobbied him for the change, along with other for-profit schools.

After the law passed, Dade Medical aggressively promoted its unaccredited program, signing up hundreds of students for a $40,050 degree that has few job prospects. Students from unaccredited programs can’t bill Medicare or Medicaid. In retiree-rich Florida, that makes them largely unemployable.

Trujillo did not return phone calls or respond to text messages to his cellphone.

Shortly after Trujillo’s controversial 2013 law passed, the Herald reported that his sister-in-law received free tuition at Dade Medical.

Many in the physical therapy community were outraged by Trujillo’s law. The Florida Board of Physical Therapy was reluctant to let Dade Medical’s students even take the license exam, because of concerns over public safety.

That’s where state Sen. Braynon came in. Braynon traveled to Gainesville in February to prod the Board of Physical Therapy to let Dade Medical students get licensed. The board backed down and gave the OK, although one board member quit in protest. Braynon did not divulge to the board that he had recently been hired as a vice president of Dade Medical’s sister school, the University of Southernmost Florida. Shortly thereafter, USMF announced it was starting a physical therapy assistant program, which also was unaccredited.

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.”

At the the time the Herald divulged Braynon’s employment by the school, Dade Medical said he was hired for his personal talents, not because he was a member of the Legislature. Braynon, in turn, insisted the college didn’t ask him to lobby the board.

Like 400 other people, Braynon lost his job when the school shut down.

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