You'd think that after Demetrio Perez Jr. pleaded guilty in 2002 to defrauding a trio of frail elderly tenants in his low-income Little Havana apartments, Miami-Dade politicians would steer clear of the felonious former school board member. But then they couldn't grease up to Perez and his deep pockets whenever an election rolls around.
How else can you explain Miami-Dade County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro and seven of his colleagues voting unanimously and without discussion last week to issue $110 million in municipal bonds to help Perez's private charter school business?
Riptide asked Barreiro and Perez to explain themselves, but neither replied to multiple messages. Another commissioner, Xavier Suarez, admits he didn't think about Perez's criminal past before voting for the bonds.
Demetrio Perez Jr.
"Since these bond requests don't involve putting up the good faith and credit of the county, I don't scrutinize them as much as I should, I guess," Suarez told Riptide.
Though it's true the bonds aren't backed by taxpayer money, they do give Perez access to a sweetheart loan not available in the private sector.
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The funds will allow the county to provide Perez with tax-exempt, low-interest financing so his nonprofit organization, Lincoln-Martí Community Agency, can acquire his private companies: DP Real Estate Holdings Inc. and Lincoln-Martí Schools. He'll be able to buy and improve charter schools in Hialeah and Florida City, and fund improvements to other schools he owns.
Perez's scheme to scam the little old ladies in his low-income apartments wasn't his only scandal. Shortly after he pleaded guilty, a Miami Herald investigation alleged he also pocketed more than $1 million in rent payments from public school funds that were meant to benefit a program for at-risk children.
Perez seems to have a similar racket going on with his Lincoln-Martí charter school in Hialeah. In 2010, the Herald reported that the school paid his real estate company $744,000 in rent — roughly 25 percent of the school's entire $3 million budget.
So why are commissioners still supporting this guy? Well, in part because his school's treasure trove lets him shower campaign donations. Perez's biggest beneficiary was — surprise! — Barreiro, who received $10,000 in bundled contributions before the August primaries. Perez also kicked in $1,000 apiece to Suarez and Audrey Edmonson, plus $2,500 to Juan Carlos Zapata. He also dropped $15,000 on Transparency in Government, an electioneering organization that ran ads supporting the incumbent county commissioners. (Suarez refunded Perez's grand because he was automatically re-elected without opposition.)