Cashing In On Kids

Academica cultivates links to lawmakers

On April 15, the board of Doral Academy selected state Sen. Anitere Flores to run a new college proposed by the charter school network. As the college president, Flores will work side by side with Academica, the influential charter school management company that will also manage the college.

At the time the Doral Academy board selected her, Flores, who sits on an education committee in Tallahassee, was also sponsoring a bill in the Legislature to create online virtual charter schools, a new school model expected to dramatically expand the charter school industry. Since the proposal passed, Academica has applied for 19 virtual charters — including two with Doral Academy, state records show.

Flores, a Miami Republican, did not respond to phone calls seeking comment, though this summer she said her new job did not create a conflict. But the arrangement illustrates the extent of Academica’s reach in Tallahassee, where the company has long cultivated influence among state lawmakers.

Academica’s owners, Fernando and Ignacio Zulueta, have steered $150,000 in campaign donations to Tallahassee lawmakers and political committees through real-estate companies they control since 2007, state election records show. The Zulueta family has donated a further $75,000 in the past five years, and Academica executives and school contractors donated a further $54,000, records show.

During that time, the Legislature relaxed rules limiting the size of charter school networks, and passed a law promoting “high performing” charter school systems — reforms that could benefit Academica as the company expands.

Academica’s closest ally in the capital is in the family: Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican, is the brother-in-law of Fernando Zulueta, Academica’s CEO. Zulueta is married to Fresen’s sister, Maggie, who also is an Academica executive.

Fresen himself is a former Academica lobbyist. He now earns $150,000 a year as a land-use consultant for Civica, a Doral architectural firm that has built several schools run by Academica — including schools on land controlled by the Zulueta brothers. Civica has ongoing contracts with many of these schools.

While working as a consultant for charter schools, Fresen has been their champion in the Legislature, where he sits on a key education committee in the House.

Earlier this year, Fresen drafted language in an education bill barring cities from imposing stricter zoning or building regulations on charter schools. At the time, the city of South Miami was considering zoning regulations that could have inhibited expansion of the Somerset Academy at SoMi, an Academica school.

Somerset also challenged zoning restrictions limiting enrollment at another Academica school, the Somerset Grace Academy in Coral Gables — an ongoing dispute that could be influenced by the new legislation. Fresen has registered at Coral Gables City Hall as a lobbyist on behalf of Somerset, records show.

Fresen said his work with Civica has not influenced his work as a lawmaker, noting that the charter school bill applies not just to Academica’s schools, but to all charter schools statewide.

“My decision on any bill would not be based on what I do for a living,” he said.

In October, Fresen was cleared in an ethics investigation sparked by a complaint that his vote this spring on the high-performing charter schools legislation was a conflict that should have been disclosed. Fresen said he consulted with an attorney in the House of Representatives before making the vote, and he later disclosed his ties to Academica.

Academica’s links to state lawmakers have drawn scrutiny before.

From 2002 to 2006, Academica also paid $230,000 to then-Rep. Ralph Arza of Hialeah under an undisclosed consulting contract, records show. At the time, Arza also sat on an education committee in the House.

Miami-Dade prosecutors investigated Arza’s ties to Academica in 2007 and 2008, records show. While being paid by Academica, Arza authored or backed at least five bills that could have benefited the charter school industry, according to records compiled by prosecutors. However, they could find no evidence that the Academica contract improperly influenced Arza’s votes.

In an interview last week, Arza said his consulting business was conducted “with the blessing of the House counsel and legal advice,” and he said he did nothing in the Legislature to benefit Academica. “As long as I voted on something that was not specific to one person, that’s allowed.”

Under the Academica contract, which paid Arza $5,000 a month, the Republican lawmaker was to monitor “quality control” for Academica and help the company identify teachers and staff.

Arza never publicly disclosed the Academica consulting deal, which was made through a company held in the name of his wife, Eris. Arza said he was not obliged to disclose the names of his clients.

Explaining the contract arrangement to prosecutors, Arza’s wife described her husband as an “independent contractor” who worked for her.

“I make sure that I counsel Ralph on everything he does,” she said in a sworn statement in 2008. “I manage him, pretty much.”

Zulueta said he hired Arza not because he was a lawmaker, but because of his contacts in the local education community. Arza was a former teacher and football coach at Miami Senior High.

“There was nothing he could do in the Legislature to help me,” Zulueta said.

Arza’s contract with Academica ended soon after his career in Tallahassee did — after he agreed not to run again in 2006 amid allegations that he had threatened a potential witness in an ethics investigation.

Just three weeks after stepping aside, Arza got a new job: as a $10,000-a-month consultant with the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, a pro-charter school organization that counts Zulueta as a board member. Arza still works for the consortium today.

Zulueta said he had no role in Arza’s job with the consortium.