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 21, 2015

New details revealed on soccer deal between Beckham and Miami; School Board may get involved

@NewsbySmiley

David Beckham and the city of Miami are getting closer to a possible 60-year, $51 million deal that would pave the way for a Little Havana soccer stadium next to Marlins Park, according to city officials and a draft stadium operating agreement obtained by the Miami Herald.

Under the terms of the agreement, Miami Beckham United or a wholly owned subsidiary would be allowed to build a 30,000-seat stadium on about 10.5 acres of land currently owned primarily by the city. Presuming Beckham's group follows through with plans to purchase private property located on parts of the proposed stadium site, he and his partners would pay the city a "management fee" of $850,000 a year over an initial term of 60 years, and potentially two additional 20-year terms at the team's option.

Half of the fee could be paid by a foundation associated with the team's ownership, and would be used to promote "youth education and athletics," and to "construct, operate and maintain soccer facilities within the city," according to the document.

The city, in exchange, would spare Miami Beckham United from paying annual property taxes by deeding 6.5 acres of its land and vacated streets to Miami-Dade County, or -- in a new, politically intriguing possibility -- the Miami-Dade School Board, both of which have tax-exempt status.

Continue reading "New details revealed on soccer deal between Beckham and Miami; School Board may get involved" »

September 26, 2015

Sen. Oscar Braynon took a job at for-profit college, may have violated FL Constitution

@MrMikeVasquez

Sen. Oscar Braynon II introduced himself as just an interested lawmaker — interested enough to drive all the way to Gainesville.

At a February meeting of Florida’s Board of Physical Therapy, held in Gainesville’s Best Western Gateway Grand, Braynon stood up to speak about a controversial issue: colleges offering unaccredited physical therapy assistant programs. The Miami Gardens Democrat was no expert on the topic, as he had to ask board members to explain how college accreditation works.

But Braynon was sure of this much: The Florida Legislature wanted students from unaccredited physical therapy assistant programs to get licensed. It didn’t matter that the physical therapy board was concerned that unaccredited programs might be of poor quality, and pose a threat to public safety.

Braynon told the board that the Legislature’s goal is “to allow access to people” from additional schools to take the license exam.

“It’s to sit for the test,” Braynon said.

What Braynon never told the board: He himself was employed as “senior vice president of government and senior relations” by a for-profit college, the University of Southernmost Florida. And that college was about to unveil its own unaccredited program. Getting the Board of Physical Therapy to go along on licensing was essential to his boss’ bottom line.

Exactly 11 days after Braynon’s trip to Gainesville, USMF sent out a news release that it was “excited to announce the launch of its Associate of Science in Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) program.” The program is currently available at the Jacksonville campus, and tuition is $40,000, according to the website of USMF, which also operates in Coral Gables.

More here.

July 06, 2015

Rep. David Richardson officially pulls out of race for Gwen Margolis' Senate seat

Fighting within the Democratic Party over a Miami seat in the state Senate seems to have subsided.

Last week, Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, officially pulled out of the race to replace Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Coconut Grove.

He had entered that election in January but said he would back out if Margolis decided to run again. Now, he says, it’s becoming clear that Margolis wants to stay in her seat.

“I’ve long said that I was not going to run against Sen. Gwen Margolis should she elect to run for reelection,” Richardson told the Times/Herald on Monday. “I believed that she probably would not run for reelection, but it has become clear to me that it’s more likely she will.”

Last week, Richardson filed paperwork with the state indicating that he won’t run for Senate until 2020.

That said, it’s a long time until November 2016. And Richardson said he will run whenever Margolis decides to step down.

If the venerable Senator — the longest-serving member of Florida’s Legislature and a former Senate president — decides to step down, Richardson plans to take the seat.

Richardson was first elected to the House in 2012. He’s the first openly gay member of the Florida Legislature. He has already collected $209,622.38 for his 2016 campaign.

June 30, 2015

Miami-Dade legislators to speak at Ramadan event

State Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, and State Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, will speak at a Sharing Ramadan event at the Al Ansar Mosque in Miami on Tuesday from from 7 to 9 p.m.

The events are sponsored by Emerge USA, an organization that aims to engage Muslim, Arab and South Asian American communities in the political process. Emerge USA has a federal political action committee that has raised small amounts of money for candidates.

The mosque is located at  5245 NW 7th Ave, Miami.

April 24, 2015

Mayor would take over MDX chairmanship under state plan

Miami-Dade's mayor would seize the chairmanship of the county’s controversial toll authority under a Tallahassee proposal that is part of a larger fight over how Miami-Dade makes decisions on transportation funding.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez said Thursday he backs the idea of becoming chairman of the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, a panel better known as the MDX and best known for recent toll expansions on the county’s main east-west highway.

Legislation sponsored by Sen. Anitere Flores, a Republican and chair of the Miami-Dade delegation, would shuffle membership of the authority, which uses toll revenue for highway construction throughout Miami-Dade.

"I think it needs some accountability," Gimenez said of MDX during a County Hall interview Thursday. "My presence would bring the MDX more into the sunshine."

As of Thursday night, the MDX plan appeared stalled in Tallahassee as Flores hit opposition when she tried to add language to a bill involving the Central Florida Expressway Authority. She said she would explore other ways to get the legislation onto the Senate floor for a vote.

The effort is the latest twist in a legislative session that has local state lawmakers trying to change the make-up of county transportation boards.

The county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, which maps out spending priorities for federally-funded transportation projects, on Thursday formally objected to proposed state legislation that would sharply reduce the number of county commissioners who serve on the board. Sponsored by Miami Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, the proposal by the Republican lawmaker so rankled the commission that one commissioner this week briefly threatened to pull funding of a county staffer that runs the Miami-Dade delegation office while the Legislature is in session.

"We are paying for staff for a delegation that doesn't even support us," Commissioner Audrey Edmonson said at Tuesday’s county commission meeting.

More here.

March 24, 2015

Florida Senate votes to oppose U.S.-Cuba relations

Cuba

In an emotional speech Tuesday, Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, asked her fellow senators to oppose President Obama’s recent decision to open up diplomatic relations with Cuba.

All but one agreed.

The measure, which also discourages the federal government from allowing a Cuban consulate in Florida, is largely symbolic. But it was important for the Cuban-American members of the state Senate, Flores said.

"A lot of my friends and colleagues have asked why we care so deeply," she said on the Senate Floor.

Flores told the story of how her mother had fled the island nation as a girl. 

She spoke about the "hundreds of thousands [who] sit in prison every day for having the gall to stand up and say something." And she showed photographs of the Ladies in White, the wives and family members of imprisoned Cuban dissidents who hold regular protests in Havana.

"They are spit upon, they are beat up, they are harassed," Flores said.

Flores said the Obama administration's decision to ease travel restrictions to Cuba would allow American visitors to "have it all," while Cuban residents would continue to suffer.

"I know you've seen the pictures of the beautiful beaches were the tourists can go," she said. "No one who is a Cuban citizen can go to those places."

Her call was echoed by Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, a Miami Republican who said members of his family had been imprisoned and killed for speaking out against the government.

Diaz de la Portilla said the new Cuba policy would "do nothing but ensure that the [Castro] regime stays in power."

"To think that by spending American cash, so Americans can by Cuban cigars and Cuban rum and stay at hotels on stolen land, that these two obstinate octogenarian dictators and their cronies are going to change anything is naive at best," he said.

Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, urged his colleagues to "send a message to this administration that we understand the plight and the problems [Cubans] are facing, and that we must continue to put the pressure on the Castro regime to open up and be transparent."

The measure passed on a voice vote, with Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, saying he was proud to stand with the members of the Miami-Dade Legislative Delegation.

Only one senator opposed the proposal.

Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Democrat, said she understood the Cuban-American senators' "passion and pain." But she defended the Obama administration's "historic steps to chart a new course" in Cuba.

"I know in my heart that there was no malice intended by the promulgation of this policy by the Obama administration, and I know that his moving this forward is an effort to bring freedom to the Cuban nation," Joyner said.

A similar proposal, sponsored by Republican Reps. Manny Diaz Jr. and Jeanette Núñez, is ready for a vote on the House floor.

So far, the House version has yet to win the support of a single Democrat. But Núñez hopes that will change.

"This is not a partisan debate for us," she said. "We're not going to denigrate the president. We're going to keep it to the policy."

March 02, 2015

Miami-Dade lawmakers seek to protect Jackson, public schools

Flores2Miami-Dade’s team of state lawmakers will return to Tallahassee next week with something they’ve been lacking in recent years: clout.

That could help the state’s largest legislative delegation accomplish its goals in 2015.

The delegation’s top priorities include shielding Jackson Health System from crippling budget cuts, helping the Miami-Dade school district avoid a $40 million tax collection shortfall, and securing funding for Florida International University and Miami Dade College.

Democrats and Republicans will also team up to increase funding for child welfare providers, and to eliminate a five-year waiting period that applies to lawfully residing immigrant children seeking subsidized health insurance (HB 829/SB 294).

"We’re focusing on issues like funding our institutions and ensuring our residents have affordable property insurance," said Sen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican who serves as delegation chair. "Those are not partisan issues. Those are South Florida issues."

The 60-day legislative session starts Tuesday.

Read more here.

December 04, 2014

Rick Scott ally blasts Miami GOP lawmakers for ‘malicious lobbying’ in bid dispute

@MarcACaputo

A $40 million Tri-Rail bid dispute is going off the political rails.

A top Broward Republican insider, William R. Scherer, is accusing three Miami-Dade GOP lawmakers of improper lobbying in the matter. One of the lawmakers said the comments from Scherer, a major backer of Gov. Rick Scott, are "ludicrous."

The case involves two construction firms, MCM of Miami and Gulf Building of Fort Lauderdale. After losing the bid, MCM enlisted the help of Sen. Anitere Flores and representatives Jeanette Nunez and Manny Diaz. Jr., who then voiced their concerns in a letter to Tri-Rail’s board, the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority (background here).

Scherer then penned this letter today that blasted his fellow Republicans. Normally, a back-and-forth like this would be limited to the original blog post. But this scorcher deserves its own post:

“My firm represents Gulf Building LLC, the winning bidder in the above referenced RFP. We have been provided with a copy of your letter of December 1, 2014 to the SFRTA board members. Attached hereto is a copy of our letter to Mr. Munilla of MCM advising him that we are going to be seeking damages against MCM and him for defamation per se toward

“Your letter now implicates each of you in a conspiracy to defame Gulf Building. Your actions are clearly as lobbyists for MCM in an effort to support MCM’s bid. You have made defamatory statements against Gulf Building that you could possibly not have verified for their truthfulness before sending your letter. This malicious lobbying behavior in the guise of your elected official capacity makes you personally liable as co-conspirators.

“Also, your communications are in violation of the cone of silence and are in violation of Florida’s laws related to improper communications in a public bidding process. Your violation of these laws will also be pursued as part of the damages claims against you and MCM for conspiracy to defame.”

“Withdraw your letters immediately. Govern yourself accordingly.”

Said Diaz in a written statement: "That letter is ludicrous. I'm not lobbying for anyone. I don't even know any of the parties involved but I strongly believe the board should guard taxpayer dollars."

Regardless of who's right, this crazy train is sure to make Friday's Tri-Rail meeting into a wreck.

Download Scherer letter 1

Download Lawmaker letter

September 10, 2014

As feds draw closer, David Rivera's confidante to be sentenced today

@MarcACaputo

The federal investigation into former congressman David Rivera takes another major step today when his close friend and political ally is scheduled to be formally sentenced for her role in allegedly helping him break campaign finance laws.

Ana Alliegro last month made a surprise admission of guilt in open court and named Rivera as the mastermind of the 2012 scheme to steer more than $81,000 to a political unknown to help fund fliers and other items to campaign against the Republican’s rival, current U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia.

“Those fliers were designed by Ana Alliegro [and] David Rivera,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Mulvihill said in court, implicitly citing prior statements Alliegro had made to prosecutors.

Before that disclosure in court, Rivera had denied wrongdoing and falsely claimed he was never under investigation. Rivera couldn’t be reached.

Court records and testimony indicate that Alliegro has told authorities that Rivera not only set the conspiracy in motion, but he also helped her flee the United States to Nicaragua when she was supposed to cooperate with prosecutors instead.

Alliegro in March was informally extradited to the United States and has been in jail ever since. Now that she’s cooperating, Alliegro could be sentenced to just six more months in jail, or even house arrest.

Alliegro is the second conviction in the case. Her co-conspirator, no-name former Democratic candidate Justin Lamar Sternad, pleaded guilty in 2013 for accepting the illegal campaign contributions and making false statements about them when he ran as a Democrat in the 2012 primary against Garcia and others.

Garcia won that race and went on to wallop the scandal-plagued Rivera in the general election. In this election, however, federal investigators are now examining whether Garcia's former top consultant and chief of staff, Jeffrey Garcia (no relation to the congressman) helped prop up yet another ringer candidate two years before in what appears to be a pre-cursor to Sternad's case.

Rep. Garcia has denied wrongdoing, said he'd cooperate with prosecutors and no witnesses have said he's culpable -- a stark contrast to Rivera's case in which two campaign vendors told The Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald that the Republican was involved in the 2012 campaign-finance scheme from the start. Based on the Herald reports, the FBI began examining the case.

With the two convictions and what appears to be a wealth of evidence and testimony against Rivera, Miami’s political and legal worlds have been abuzz with word of Rivera’s imminent indictment.

But Rivera, who has survived a prior federal investigation and a separate state investigation into his finances, has avoided indictments in the past. A Tallahassee judge, however, recently sided with state ethics commission prosecutors and found that he broke state ethics laws over how he managed campaign and taxpayer money as a state legislator.

Rivera is appealing. The ethics commission has yet to rule on the case.

But voters have rendered their verdict.

Rivera tried to mount a comeback to run against Garcia this year. But the one-time political power broker, nagged by scandal and his repeated misstatements reported in the press, came in fourth place in a five-way GOP primary on Aug. 26.

Rivera received just 2,209 votes – which is 647 less than the no-name Sternad received just two years before when his campaign was propped up by illegal money.