Troubled Dade Medical College shut down abruptly. Was that a crime? A judge will decide

There’s no dispute that Ernesto Perez, the troubled former owner of a controversial for-profit medical college, abruptly shuttered his campuses three years ago, leaving hundreds of students and staff members in a lurch.

But was it a crime?

Perez will soon find out. His trial started Wednesday on allegations that he broke the law when he failed to give 30 days’ notice that he was closing Dade Medical College and its sister school, the University of Southernmost Florida.

Perez, who faces up to 120 days in jail if convicted, was charged under a state law that requires that a school owner notify Florida’s Commission for Independent Education at least 30 days before its doors close. According to investigators, Perez made the decision on noon on Oct. 30, 2015, then notified staff and students via e-mail four hours later. The commission learned one hour after that.

“He knew he was in financial problems and they decided at the last minute to close down the school,” prosecutor Isis Perez, who is not related to the defendant, told Miami-Dade County Judge Andrew Hague.

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Ernesto Perez, the former head of the troubled Dade Medical College, is on trial on allegations he illegally shut down the school without the proper notifications. He faces up to 120 days in jail.

AL DIAZ adiaz@miamiherald.com

Prosecutors say Dade Medical College also did not complete a “written closure plan” mandated by law, which would have detailed training for students left in a lurch, information on refunds to those pupils and how academic records would be sent to the commission.

The charges were another blow for Ernesto Perez, who once sat on that same state commission and ran the lucrative college and its smaller affiliate. But Perez came under law-enforcement scrutiny and was the subject of a Miami Herald investigation that highlighted how Florida’s for-profit colleges have used political connections to fuel their growth.

Some Dade Medical students have complained that the school’s health-career training was so poor that it put them at risk of hurting patients after they graduated. In 2014, only 13 percent of graduates at the Hollywood campus passed the nursing license exam. At the Miami campus, 44 percent passed.

In November 2015, Perez pleaded guilty after prosecutors accused him of illegally bundling $159,000 in campaign contributions to various politicians. He agreed to serve two months of house arrest and three years of probation, as well as paying $150,000 to law enforcement and $50,000 in charitable donations.

State authorities now say he violated his probation by not making payments. He is scheduled for a hearing on the matter on Thursday.

His defense lawyer, Joseph Klock, is disputing that Perez — who he described not as an owner but a “shareholder” — needed to notify the commission. Still, the school did “everything they could to notify students.”

But the campuses had no choice but to shut down because federal authorities had cut their funding, meaning the schools couldn’t pay the bills.

“There was no money to pay the electric bill,” Klock said. “There was no money to pay the teachers.”

Before trial on Wednesday, Perez rejected a plea offer of six months of probation and a guilty conviction on his record. Prosecutors and the defense lawyer agreed to waive a trial by jury.