On the surface at least, Ernesto Perez seemed to be a most remarkable South Florida success story.
Perez grew up in Little Havana from a Cuban-American family of modest means. He dropped out of Coral Gables Senior High in the 10th grade, eager to chase a career as a heavy metal musician.
Though he never achieved rock ’n’ roll fame, Perez struck gold as an educational entrepreneur. He founded Dade Medical College in 1999, and in the lucrative world of for-profit colleges, Perez’s own lack of education wasn’t an obstacle. The college grew quickly to include multiple campuses, and the now-wealthy Perez became politically active and influential.
But Perez, 45, resigned as president/CEO last Tuesday, hoping to distance the school from a slew of recent problems. He faces criminal charges, lingering ethical questions about his political activities, and a backlash from angry students who describe his school as a rip-off. He remains the company’s majority owner.
Among the issues dogging Perez and his college:
• Early this year, two of Dade Medical’s nursing programs — Miami and Hollywood —were placed on state probation because graduating students have such a poor record of passing their required licensing exam.
• In August, Homestead Mayor Steve Bateman was arrested on corruption charges. The charges did not involve Perez, but the arrest highlighted Perez’s unusually close ties to Bateman. Perez hired the mayor’s wife as his real estate broker, and he did so at the same time that he was trying to push through a controversial land deal with the city. The transaction, which is still pending, would sell a cluster of downtown Homestead properties to Dade Medical at a huge discount — Perez would pay less than 40 cents on the dollar. The Miami-Dade state attorney’s office is scrutinizing Perez’s ties to the now-former mayor.