November 09, 2015

Joe Negron's Florida Senate presidency designation set for December

Joenegron

@ByKristenMClark

With the battle for the next Senate presidency settled last week between Sens. Joe Negron and Jack Latvala, Senate Republican leaders announced today the date for Negron's designation ceremony.

It will be held 2 p.m. Dec. 2, during the middle of the final committee week scheduled in advance of the 2016 legislative session.

The planned vote by the Republican caucus is to designate Negron, R-Stuart, as the next Senate president for a two-year term starting in November 2016.

Praising Negron's legislative experience and leadership, current Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said he is “pleased to see the caucus unite around Senator Negron.”

Up until Thursday, Negron had been engaged in a three-year battle for the chamber's top post with Latvala, a Clearwater Republican. In exchange for Latvala withdrawing from the race, Negron announced he would make Latvala the next chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Photo credit: tampabay.com

November 07, 2015

FL lawmakers kept soaking up freebies at Dade Medical College - until the bitter end

@MrMikeVasquez

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 was 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.

More here.

November 05, 2015

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

@ByKristenMClark

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

 

@MrMikeVasquez

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

@MrMikeVasquez 

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

@MrMikeVasquez

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

@MrMikeVasquez

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

@MrMikeVasquez

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

@ByKristenMClark

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

@ByKristenMClark

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.