Closed Case, Open Questions
For those frustrated with the chronic dysfunction of our school district, television images this past April offered a tantalizing promise of change. Newscasts showed federal agents leaving the United Teachers of Dade headquarters with boxes of financial records. Then in July agents descended on one of the homes kept by UTD president Pasquale "Pat" Tornillo, hauling away more documents. It seemed like the rotten piñata of school corruption was about to burst open.
Instead we got Tornillo's flimsy plea deal last week, a scant five months after an insider first alerted the feds to Tornillo's uncontrolled use of public school teachers' money. For his lavish spending on the union's dime, Tornillo faces two years in a federal penitentiary and fines and restitution of about $675,000, not including roughly $200,000 in penalties. But he does not have to cooperate with authorities to help them further the investigation. Plus they granted him immunity from prosecution should other crimes be discovered after his plea. The man who was at the heart of school-district politics, who lobbied politicians and district officials on behalf of nearly 30,000 district employees, who pushed shaky health-insurance plans down the district's gullet will not be required to explain who he worked with, how, and why. The man who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of union money on personal extravagances such as globe-trotting vacations, luxury hotels, and designer clothing and jewelry will not have to tell investigators why he was never questioned about those expenses by UTD staff in the four decades he ran the place.
It's a mind-boggling concession by the government, especially given the evidence against him. This will put pressure on state prosecutors to get involved. Legally Tornillo's transgressions -- using UTD money for personal expenses -- were tax issues. He's not a teacher paid by the district and assigned to the union. Tornillo was a private-sector employee. So it's not exactly a public-corruption case. In addition, the UTD chose to reimburse him. So it's not clear he was defrauding the union.
The problem for Tornillo was that the money spent on those trips, luxury hotels, clothes, and jewelry significantly boosted his annual income precisely because the expenses were not business-related. He and his wife, who also made thousands of dollars of purchases on the union's credit cards, never declared the money on their tax returns. That's where the feds caught him (and her).
Because everything was recorded on paper -- receipts, invoices, tax returns -- and because the case didn't rely on witnesses who might be discredited by defense attorneys, there was no need to rush the investigation. And the fact that Tornillo's wife Donna was also implicated meant federal prosecutors had substantial leverage to force Tornillo, a vulnerable 77 years old, to cooperate.
But they didn't. Instead they agreed to back off and not prosecute Donna Tornillo. Miami's relatively new U.S. Attorney, Marcos Jimenez, declared at a press conference that no one can be forced to cooperate.
Many in law enforcement were mystified by Jimenez's comment and the way he handled the case. "I spent more than twenty years of my life forcing people to cooperate," says a former federal prosecutor who asked not to be named. "You go after their wife. You go after their dog. It just seems bizarre to me they didn't do that here. I don't know if I'm missing something."
A similarly flummoxed former FBI agent also wonders aloud about the arrangement. "I have never seen a sweetheart deal like that without some sort of cooperation," says the ex-agent, who also asked for confidentiality. "They had this rock solid. There was no way out for him. There has to be something else going on."
If there is, no one is saying. Matthew Dates, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, says Washington has been encouraging faster resolutions to white-collar cases. "We are trying to move these cases more quickly, although we won't sacrifice thoroughness for speed."
The feds hurried to this decision only months after initiating the investigation. That's rare. The U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI are not exactly known for closing cases quickly. Normally it takes the feds forever to conclude an investigation. A year is considered fast; two years is more like it. And this case, involving a high-profile player and voluminous records, had all the makings of a protracted inquiry.
"I was surprised by the speed and by the apparent concessions [in the plea deal]," says Miami-Dade schools superintendent Merrett Stierheim. "It would be nice to have the feeling that everything's been exposed and we can put this behind us. Unfortunately now we don't know."
Stierheim specifically mentioned health-insurance company HIP/Vista, which Tornillo pressured the district to accept, along with lobbyist Eric "Ric" Sisser, who earned a multimillion-dollar commission from the deal. "Pat early on, and for quite awhile, was pushing Vista," Stierheim recounts. Now he'd like to know why. "The question in the public mind is: How did Tornillo's will become public policy?"
School board members Marta Perez and Perla Tabares Hantman have asked the school district to investigate whether Tornillo misspent any district funds. The American Federation of Teachers, the UTD's national parent now running the local union, also wonders if there is more misspending to be discovered. They've hired independent accountants to conduct a forensic audit. "Once our audit is over, we expect to seek additional funds" from Tornillo, says the AFT's Alex Wohl.
The federal case against Tornillo won't answer any of those questions. It remains limited to his personal spending of UTD money. The Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, which hired a veteran prosecutor specifically to investigate school-related matters, could examine evidence to see if new state charges are applicable. But State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle says she is not interested in rehashing the feds' work. "If there are other allegations brought forward, we would look at them," she says.
Miami-Dade Police Department Director Carlos Alvarez, whose officers were involved in the investigation, says he's content with the outcome. "I'm just happy we were able to get this guy," he offers, explaining that he has friends and family members who are teachers. "Based on what we have, it's a good deal [for prosecutors]. The problem is what could still be out there. But that is speculation. From a police standpoint, we would like to keep those avenues open, but at the end of the day the U.S. Attorney's Office has to prosecute the case."
Sure, they got the guy. But getting more answers would have been worth the wait.
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