November 05, 2015

VIDEO: Florida Senate, House leaders sound off as special session ends


After the Legislature's special Senate redistricting session ended tonight without a redrawn map of Senate district boundaries, Republican leaders addressed the next steps and whether they could have reached a different outcome.

Read our coverage here.

November 04, 2015

PHOTOS: Ernesto Perez and his political friends

Cantor and mayor



Before his for-profit college suddenly collapsed on Friday, and before he was arrested for allegedly illegal campaign contributions on Tuesday, Dade Medical College owner Ernesto Perez was the king of an educational empire. Perez earned $431,999 a year, put his parents and wife on the company payroll, and he contributed heavily to political campaigns.

Perez enjoyed access to local, state, and federal politicians — a U.S. Senator from Colorado, the mayors of Miami and Homestead, and lots of state lawmakers. Here are photographs of some of the many politicians who crossed paths with Dade Medical College. The photos demonstrate the enormous level of Perez’s political reach.

See more photos here

November 03, 2015

UPDATED: Giving money to politicians backfires on Ernesto Perez


One week ago, Dade Medical College owner Ernesto Perez was drawing a $431,999 salary and running six campuses spread across the state.

On Tuesday, Perez found himself in handcuffs, flanked by a wall of TV news cameras.

The humbling ordeal followed the Friday closure of his for-profit college empire. And the subsequent filing of criminal charges that he illegally bundled more than $159,000 in campaign contributions to politicians.

At Miami’s Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building, Perez turned himself in to authorities. The new charges are on top of pending perjury charges, from 2013, that remain unresolved.

Spreading around political cash was Perez’s calling card — now, it has become part of his undoing. And although Tallahassee politicians passed laws that helped Dade Medical, such as weakening academic quality standards, none of that was enough to keep his college afloat. The combination of mounting debts and heightened scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Education led to Friday’s school collapse, which displaced about 2,000 students.

During the school’s heyday, Perez was influential enough to secure a sit-down meeting with Gov. Rick Scott. He traveled to Tallahassee in a chartered plane. He drove around downtown Coral Gables in a silver Bentley.

Perez is now “liquidating some long-held assets,” his defense attorney, Michael Band, told Circuit Judge Stacy Glick in a Tuesday court hearing.

More here.

For-profit FastTrain College forged signatures, ex-employee says


The former director of admissions at FastTrain College testified in federal court on Monday, telling jurors that school owner Alejandro Amor scolded employees over the forged signatures they were putting on student financial aid documents.

Amor wasn’t upset that the forgeries were happening, ex-employee Juan Arreola testified. The for-profit college owner was ticked off that they weren’t convincing enough.

“The name’s crooked ... you need to coach your guys better,” Arreola said Amor told him. Amor’s suggested method, Arreola said: Put the original signature up to the sunlight in front of a glass window, and then trace it.

“You need to show your guys how to take forging classes,” Arreola said his former boss told him.

Arreola is one of many ex-employees testifying in the criminal trial of Amor, the owner and former school president. The trial may last until December.

Miami-based FastTrain once boasted seven Florida campuses, including locations in Kendall, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Pembroke Pines. Amor had a private jet and a 54-foot yacht named Big One.

More here.

Dade Medical College students demand answers


The anger of Dade Medical College students boiled over on Monday, leading dozens of students to protest in the streets outside the school’s now-abandoned Coral Gables headquarters. Hundreds joined a new Dade Medical College Facebook group that seeks “justice for students.”

But while anger came easily, answers did not. What to do now? Where to turn?

Florida’s Commission for Independent Education, the state’s for-profit college watchdog, monitored the chaotic situation from 488 miles away at its Tallahassee headquarters. In an e-mail, the CIE informed students it was working “to arrange for the train-out of all students at their current locations.” It’s not clear who would teach those classes now that Dade Medical is out of business, but Florida Department of Education spokeswoman Cheryl Etters said the goal is “to arrange classes at the DMC campuses.”

Whatever school or schools step in could make millions of dollars from the displaced Dade Medical students. Those negotiations appeared to be moving quickly, and behind closed doors, on Monday — three days after the for-profit college unexpectedly closed.

In a separate e-mail to students, Lissette Paradela, Dade Medical-Homestead director of nursing, announced that “Management Resource College (MRC) has been approved for a teach-out program of DMC students and faculty.” Paradela instructed students to attend one of four meetings at their new school on Tuesday.

If that e-mail proves correct, Dade Medical students will end up going from one poorly performing nursing school to another. Dade Medical graduates for years struggled with low scores on the nursing license exam and Management Resource College also has low passage rates — in 2014, under the name Management Resources Institute, it had a passage rate of 51 percent.

The national average in 2014 was 82 percent.

More here.

October 30, 2015

For-profit Dade Medical College implodes


Dade Medical College, the homegrown for-profit school that rose from humble origins to become an educational juggernaut, announced Friday it is closing its doors, effective at the end of the day.

Majority owner Ernesto Perez issued an afternoon memo informing employees and students.

Perez once wielded enormous political power both locally and in Tallahassee. But amid heightened federal scrutiny and mounting debts, he was unable to keep his college from going out of business.

All six Dade Medical campuses, stretching from Homestead to Jacksonville, are affected. Also closing are the two campuses of Dade Medical’s smaller affiliate school, the University of Southernmost Florida.

“Since the school’s opening in 1999, Dade Medical College contributed to the community through the training of thousands of Nursing and Allied Healthcare workers that graduated and are working in their field,” Perez wrote in his memo, adding “I, for one, will definitely miss working alongside you and witnessing all the positive outcomes we’ve built together.”

Some former Dade Medical students don’t consider their outcomes positive. They accuse the school of selling an overpriced, poor-quality education. And Dade Medical’s graduates have low passage rates for license exams in nursing and physical therapy assistance — the 2014 nursing passage rate at the Hollywood campus was 13 percent.

The bad news for Perez is likely to continue. As early as next week, he is expected to be arrested in connection with alleged campaign finance violations, multiple knowledgeable sources told the Herald. Perez also remains under criminal investigation for financial irregularities involving student loans.

Perez is a high school dropout and onetime rock musician who saw his colleges as an educational alternative for students who might not prosper at a traditional institution.

He made powerful friends along the way. Dade Medical has contributed more than $170,000 to state and federal candidates, through Perez’s companies, relatives and employees at various affiliated firms. Nearly a dozen South Florida politicians were either put on the college payroll or hired on a contractual basis.

More here.

October 09, 2015

Advocates urge Florida Legislature to take up death penalty sentencing reforms

Florida execution chamber


On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in a lawsuit challenging the legality of Florida's death penalty sentencing procedures -- a case that could have far-reaching repercussions on past and present death penalty cases in the state, some fear.

A group of criminal justice advocates say the Florida Legislature could avoid such a chaotic outcome by simply updating state law to conform with the constitutional standard set by a prior U.S. Supreme Court opinion, one that most every other state follows.

At issue is the jury's role in determining whether a defendant should receive the death penalty. The Supreme Court previously ruled that it's the jury's responsibility, not a judge's, to decide that and that a jury must recommend that outcome unanimously on each count.

While almost every other death-penalty state changed its laws in the wake of that 2002 decision, Florida did not. Florida law allows for a death-penalty recommendation if only a simple majority of a jury -- seven of 12 jurors -- supports it.

State lawmakers have, for years, been trying to change the law to require a unanimous jury recommendation, but they've been unsuccessful. Some legal experts fear the 2016 session is the legislature's last chance to make changes before the Supreme Court takes hold of the situation.

Continue reading "Advocates urge Florida Legislature to take up death penalty sentencing reforms" »

October 08, 2015

Confederate Flag in Florida Senate seal on its way out


Citing historical inaccuracies and a need to reflect modern values, a Senate committee unanimously recommended Thursday that the Confederate flag be removed from the Florida Senate’s official seal.

The vote came after little discussion and no opposition from the bipartisan panel. A two-thirds majority vote of the full Senate, or support from 27 of 40 members, is needed to complete the change.

Sixteen different flags have flown over Florida in its long history, and the state shouldn’t endorse flags of illegitimate governments, he said, referring to the Civil War rebellion of the southern states.

For others, the rule change embodies something more personal: a desire to rid the Senate’s insignia of a controversial symbol that has a widespread effect, “especially [for] those of us who have African ancestry as it relates to a dark period in our history that still has a profound effect upon many of us,” said Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner of Tampa.

More here.

October 06, 2015

Open-carry bill passes Florida House subcommittee


Gun owners in Florida with concealed-carry permits are one step closer to getting the right to openly carry those weapons in public, under legislation that cleared a House subcommittee today by a 8-4 vote.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, who introduced HB 163, said it “restores and vindicates” Second Amendment rights and promotes public safety. But critics of the proposal said it should, at a minimum, include better training requirements and also better protect property owner’s rights if they don't want weapons in their homes or businesses.

Those who are in total opposition said an open-carry law in Florida would instill fear, rather than calm.

“When I am out at Starbucks and there’s a cop there with his gun, it’s intimidating and it’s scary,” said Shawn Bartelt, a retiree and mother of two teenagers from Orlando. “I do not want to walk around when I walk my dogs and know that somebody’s carrying a gun out there. … I don’t want my kids raised in a world where we’re being less civilized.”

Gaetz argued that fighting for gun-owners’ rights has the opposite effect, and he said federal crime statistics are on his side.

“While we will certainly hear from shrill voices on the left that open carry will lead to the wild, wild west, that is not borne out by any of the data we have,” Gaetz said. He said U.S. Department of Justice statistics from 2012 actually show less violent crime in states with open-carry laws.

Florida is one of only five states and the District of Columbia, which prohibit openly carrying firearms and other restricted weapons.

Continue reading "Open-carry bill passes Florida House subcommittee" »

October 05, 2015

Jones: ‘No performance issues’ with corrections’ I.G. who resigned

Julie jones


Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones told a Senate committee Monday that the re-assignment of her agency’s inspector general was of his own choosing, not because of performance issues.

Jeffery Beasley announced last week that he is stepping down to head up the department’s intelligence division. Beasley’s job change comes as the corrections department has been plagued for more than a year by widespread criticism and allegations that Beasley and his office failed to investigate or may have even hindered investigations into suspicious deaths, beatings and medical neglect of inmates in the state prison system.

While giving an update to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee on Monday afternoon, Jones spoke about ways she's trying to improve the environment within the agency by focusing on values, such as supervisory accountability. Senators had one question about Beasley's job change -- specifically, how Jones' vision jibes with Beasley's re-assignment.

“I’m trying to understand how someone goes from being an I.G. that perhaps they didn’t perform well or something, and then they get integrated in the system,” said Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, vice-chairwoman of the committee. “What kind of signal does that send?”

Jones said there were “no performance issues” with Beasley.

“He did four years’ worth of good duty and has elected to step away from his position and do something different,” she said.

Beasley, 41, similarly told the Miami Herald last week that he elected voluntarily to move into the new role.

“This is a phenomenal move and opportunity," Beasley told the Herald. “This is not the secretary running me out of the position. This is not the governor forcing me out of the office."

Beasley is expected to continue as inspector general for a few more weeks. The intelligence division, which Beasley will now oversee, is tasked with probing inmate-generated crime, including identity theft and drug and tobacco trafficking.

Jones told reporters she will have no role in recommending Beasley's successor.

"That is not my responsibility," she said, adding that Melinda Miguel -- Gov. Rick Scott’s appointed chief inspector general -- will advertise the position and put together an interview board, which will make recommendations to Miguel and Jones.

 Photo credit: The Florida Channel