Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Before his fall, Ernesto Perez bought himself lots of friends

Dade Medical College owner Ernesto Perez is taken into custody after agreeing to a plea deal with prosecutors at Miami-Dade criminal courthouse on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015.
Dade Medical College owner Ernesto Perez is taken into custody after agreeing to a plea deal with prosecutors at Miami-Dade criminal courthouse on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015.

Ernesto Perez could not have sustained this wretched farce without them.

His political flunkies happily took his money — $750,000 in campaign contributions. A couple of state legislators landed jobs on Perez’s payroll.

He was such a canny investor. For his money, Perez bought himself an impressive gallery of photos — him alongside so many powerful elected officials — along with the corresponding political influence needed to keep his hinky, for-profit college operations going.

When Dade Medical College and University of Southernmost Florida finally collapsed last Friday, leaving 2,000 Florida students in the lurch, it was only because the feds had cracked down. Not because the Florida attorney general or governor or angry legislators or the state’s notoriously permissive Commission for Independent Education awoke from their disinterested comas. (My colleague Michael Vasquez reported that the CIE, after 14 years of existence as a regulatory commission, seemingly has failed to take a single disciplinary action against any for-profit college.)

When Perez had needed special legislation to keep his unaccredited programs afloat, his boys in the state Capitol were happy to accommodate their sugar daddy, passing legislation that allowed graduates of unaccredited physical therapy assistant programs to take state licensing exams.

Lawmakers weren’t bothered by an abysmal failure rate among his grads, or the high tuition, or the predatory loans foisted on his hapless students, or the dismal percentage of graduates who landed decent jobs. Not as long as they got their money.

State legislators even tried to stanch competition from area colleges like Miami Dade College and Broward College, happy to undermine respected nonprofit public institutions along with their constituents’ best interests to keep a low-down operator happy. Among other slights, every year since 2009, Miami-Dade’s own legislators stifled a bill that would have allowed county residents to vote on a proposed half-cent sales tax to replenish the community college budget.

It was a nice gift for Perez. Never mind that Miami Dade College was offering accredited nursing programs for one-fifth of what Dade Medical College charged, or that MDC graduates passed the licensing test at five times the rate of say the grads from Dade Medical’s Hollywood campus.

Why would legislators favor a suspect operation run by a high school dropout who spent six months in jail in the 1990s for exposing his genitals to a 15-year-old (and now faces perjury and false information charges for not disclosing the conviction on sworn government forms)?

For $750,000, that’s why. Including at least $159,000 in faux contributions from Perez’s employees, according to the charging affidavit filed Tuesday by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office. The workers were illegally reimbursed by Perez, whose attorney has apparently worked out a sweet deal that will let him off with a guilty plea, a fine and one night in jail.

Still, it almost seemed unfair, the sight of Perez all alone in handcuffs, facing charges of illegally purchasing political influence. If this had been a dope deal, it would be the peddlers, not the buyers, facing the full wrath of the law.

But in this case, his flunkies need only worry about reelection.

Related stories from Miami Herald