According to federal records, 84 to 91 percent of Dade Medical's pupils pay for their education with Pell Grants and federal student loans. In fiscal year 2010-11, Dade Medical collected $15 million in revenue from federal student aid programs.

Over the past four years, the school's growth has allowed Perez to buy new locations, acquire another college, and establish corporate headquarters in a posh office space in Coral Gables. In October 2009, Perez, through a holding company, bought three properties in Homestead for $433,400 and leased three floors in a nearby office building. The properties make up Dade Medical's Homestead campus. In 2011, Perez purchased three more buildings for a combined $1.6 million.

Dade Medical also moved its cramped Hialeah branch to a 40,000-square-foot space on NW 163rd St. in Miami Lakes. While seeking approval from the town, Dade Medical hired village councilman Nelson Hernandez as a financial consultant. Hernandez says he had no involvement in helping Dade Medical College with the city. Perez notes his company no longer employs Hernandez.

Dade Medical College's Ernesto Perez plans to revitalize historic downtown Homestead.
Courtesy of Dade Medical College
Dade Medical College's Ernesto Perez plans to revitalize historic downtown Homestead.

Also, Perez pays state Sen. Rene Garcia $119,000 annually as a government affairs consultant but insists the Hialeah politician has never helped him in Tallahassee.

The college CEO admits he raises cash for politicians to get their attention. "Whether you're running a hot-dog stand or a national conglomerate, you need access to these individuals if you want to engage the political process," Perez says. "But if you look at the amount of money we've contributed [to elected officials], we don't get a lot in return."

But investigators for the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office and the Miami-Dade ethics commission are investigating Homestead Mayor Steve Bateman for allegedly pushing a sweetheart deal for Perez in 2011. At the time, Bateman was running for re-election and received at least 15 contributions of $500 each from Perez and people tied to Dade Medical College. According to public records, including emails, Bateman pressured Homestead government staffers and manipulated the process to help Perez purchase 3.5 acres of city-owned land — while steering Perez's real estate transaction to Bateman's wife, Donna, a real estate broker. Dade Medical agreed to buy the property for $328,000 — roughly one-third of its value as determined by an independent real estate appraisal.

Though the mayor abstained from the Dade Medical deal vote, he did not disclose that his wife's real estate agency would receive a commission or that she had represented the college in other purchases of downtown properties. Perez insists there was no quid pro quo. "We paid a fair price for that land given the state of the real estate market when we made the deal," he says. "I don't really know what [Bateman] did wrong when the rest of the council voted unanimously for it."

But, of course, the most important thing about any school is its students. Maria, who's enrolled in nursing courses, says she has taken out nearly $48,000 in federal loans to pay for classes during the past two years at Dade Medical. Yet she has attended classes where professors simply conduct PowerPoint presentations or read from a book. They don't engage the students or take time to answer their questions, she says. And if students complain to the administration, they are made to feel as if it's their fault for not learning anything.

Maria discovered last month that the Florida Board of Nursing placed Dade Medical's Miami and Hollywood nursing programs on probation owing to poor student performance on national exams. In Hollywood, only 38 percent of the Dade Medical students who took the license test in 2012 passed. In Miami, only 46 percent succeeded during the same period. State law requires for-profit schools to have passing rates that are close to the 89 percent national average. According to the most recent results provided by the Board of Nursing, 79 of 128 nursing students at Dade Medical's Homestead, Hollywood, Miami, and Miami Lakes campuses have failed since January 1.

Perez acknowledges the abysmal numbers, yet he proclaims Dade Medical will be off probation within a year. "Obviously, our passing rates are not where they need to be. But let's look at the positive side. In the last three years, we've helped 350 nurses get state certification," he says. "Our students are people who can't get into traditional schools... Obviously, it is more difficult to train those students."

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