Florida Heavyweight

Private College Kingpin Who Bankrolled Florida Pols Surrenders to Feds

Ernesto Perez, who owns Dade Medical College, backed Florida lawmakers from Bill Nelson to Mario Rubio. Now he’s pleading guilty to illegally bundling campaign contributions.

A well-known Florida donor who gave thousands to prominent pols from Marco Rubio to Debbie Wasserman Schultz turned himself in Tuesday afternoon for allegedly making illegal campaign contributions.

The Miami Herald reported that Ernesto Perez, who owns the for-profit Dade Medical College, surrendered on Tuesday and plans to plead guilty for illegally bundling campaign contributions. He will likely serve one day in jail and pay a $200,000 fine, according to the paper.

It isn’t clear which particular contributions have gotten Perez into legal trouble.

He was generous with the state’s Republican Party, cutting it a $5,000 check in 2011. He also backed a handful of state legislators in both parties.

Rubio got a particularly large windfall from Perez. In 2013 he contributed $15,000 to the Florida senator’s political ambitions—$10,000 to his leadership PAC and $5,000 to his principal campaign committee.

“We’ll monitor the developments and take any appropriate action necessary,” Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said in an email.

Perez’s generosity extended to both sides of the political aisle, according to FEC records. During the 2012 presidential cycle, he gave $2,500 to Mitt Romney’s campaign and $5,000 to Obama for America.

In 2011, Perez’s donations included $2,500 to disgraced congressman and Rubio pal David Rivera. Perez also donated a total of $3,000 in 2012 and 2013 to former Rep. Mike Grimm (R-NY), who in July was sentenced to eight months in prison for felony tax evasion for underreporting revenues at his restaurant, Healthalicious.

On the Democratic side, from 2011 to 2013, Perez gave $40,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz received $5,000 for her Florida congressional campaign in 2011. Her staff didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Former Rep. Joe Garcia (D-FL) received two contributions of $2,600 in 2013.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) received $5,000 in 2011.

And Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who had legal troubles of his own in Florida this year—also received a total of $5,000 from Perez. In addition to Menendez, Perez gave $10,000 to the New Jersey Democratic Party.

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He also gave generously to state and local politicians.

A separate Herald story detailed how Perez used connections with state elected officials to push for policies that advanced Dade Medical College, his for-profit institution—at one point even chartering a private plane to fly a mayor and lawmaker to Tallahassee to meet with Gov. Rick Scott about a road project from which the college stood to benefit. On Oct. 30, Perez sent an email to the college’s students and employees to announce it was shutting down, giving no explanation for the move. NBC’s Miami affiliate reported that students who tried to go to classes that evening found locked doors. The college closure sparked student protests.

But the collapse of the Dade Medical College, which had six campuses, wasn’t unforeshadowed. Students had exceptionally low passage rates for medical licensing exams. The Herald reported that some employees’ paychecks bounced shortly before the school announced its closure and that a federal court recently ruled the college owed a private student loan company $4.6 million. In addition, the Department of Education recently put the school on “heightened cash monitoring” status, which limited its access to federal funds.

Students who attended the school seemed to get a raw deal. The Herald noted that only 36 percent of this year’s graduates from its unaccredited physical therapist assistant associate’s degree program passed a licensing test necessary for them to use their skills.

“Florida is the only state that permits unaccredited physical therapy assistant programs,” the paper reported, “and the law that allows them was spearheaded in 2013 by a Dade Medical ally: Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Trujillo, whose sister-in-law received free tuition, the Herald reported.”