Dade Medical College Loses Its Most Powerful Political Ally in Homestead

Dade Medical College CEO Ernesto Perez
A pungent odor permeates an empty mosaic-tiled room inside a shuttered motel at 304 N. Krome Ave. in downtown Homestead. Mildew seeps through the walls. "Before I owned this place, it was a haven for crack addicts and prostitutes," says the 43-year-old owner, Ernesto Perez, who bought the place for $610,000 two years ago. "The police chief begged me to make the owner an offer because the landlord was condoning what was taking place."

Perez is the chief executive of Dade Medical College, a school that has been expanding quickly in Homestead, in part due to its leaders close relationship with Mayor Steven Bateman. But now Dade Medical College has lost its biggest supporter on the city council. Yesterday, the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office charged Bateman with unlawful compensation and Gov. Rick Scott removed him from office.

See also: Homestead Mayor Steven Bateman Arrested for Unlawful Compensation

The motel is part of Perez's grand vision for revitalizing a sleepy historic business district. Over the past three years, Perez -- through his companies Florida Education Center and Florida Education Centers of Homestead -- has been amassing properties. In addition to the motel and three buildings that make up the Homestead campus of Dade Medical College, he also has an old country restaurant -- Lucky's Pub & Grub -- and the space that was once home to a McCrory's five-and-ten. One day, Perez boasts, the motel will be a dorm for students.

"I see downtown Homestead as College Town U.S.A.," he says. "We'll be able to attract students from the city [and from] the Keys."

A charismatic Cuban-American with gelled-back curly hair and a goatee, Perez is one of the most politically influential for-profit college owners in Florida. He abandoned a rock singing career -- marred by a 1990 no-contest plea in response to raunchy accusations by an underage fan ­-- and built Dade Medical College from a modest massage therapy school into an institution of higher learning that offers associate's degrees in nursing, physical therapy, and other medical fields.

During the past four years, he has been appointed twice by two governors to serve on the Florida Commission for Independent Education, which sets the rules and regulations for his industry. The probe led investigators to another questionable deal involving Bateman; a $125-an-hour consulting gig with a local nonprofit agency, which was the basis for his arrest. The state attorney's office and the ethics commission probes into Dade Medical's connection to Bateman continues.

Perez and his wife have recently donated at least $100,000 to 21 PACS and candidates of both parties including Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, local U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, New Jersey U.S. Rep. Bob Menendez, and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio. Heck, Perez has even put some politicians on the Dade Medical payroll, such as state Sen. Rene Garcia and Nelson Hernandez, a councilman in Miami Lakes, which is home to another of the school's campuses.

But prosecutors and ethics investigators are probing Dade Medical's 2011 agreement to purchase city-owned land in downtown Homestead. Some students complain the school provides a poor education. And in February, the Florida Board of Nursing placed Dade Medical's nursing programs at its Hollywood and Miami campuses on probation. The alleged problem: a high failure rate among students taking the state nursing exam.

"I don't know how they are still in business," says Maria, a student at Dade Medical who asked that her last name be excluded. "The teachers aren't prepared for class, and the administration is a mess."

Adds her classmate Ruben: "The professors are inexperienced and disorganized. You are basically on your own. It's really disappointing."

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