After Billing His Office $30K for Harvard Degree, Commissioner Wants to Ban Others From Doing So

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Last year, Commissioner Juan Zapata got caught using his $930,000 office budget to pay for a $30,000 master’s degree from Harvard. He justified it by saying his constituents would benefit from his continued education.

That excuse didn't go over so well. Within days, Zapata was outed by reporter Erika Carrillo of Univision and subsequently returned the money. The case was sent to the county's Commission on Ethics & Public Trust for review. 

Upon closer investigation, however, the ethics board found that using taxpayer money to fund a fancy Ivy League degree technically wasn't against any formal policy. The revelation led the board to suggest new rules be passed to stop public officials from using their budgets to fund their schooling.

This Tuesday, an ordinance that would curtail the practice will go before the county's board of commissioners for a first reading. The sponsor? None other than Juan Zapata, who tells New Times he's sponsoring the ordinance after reviewing the ethics board's decision.

"The ethics report showed the deficiencies in the process," he said in an email. "My personal motivation was to prevent something like this from happening to somebody else in the future." 

The Harvard snafu was embarrassing for Zapata, who in turn blamed Mayor Carlos Gimenez's staff for leaking emails about the situation to the media. In July, Zapata announced he would not seek reelection. (He told New Times the incident had no bearing on his decision.)

In his email, Zapata said he always intended to self-finance the degree.

"It was always my intention to personally pay if I chose to do the full Masters program. At the time I was deciding on whether to do the Exec program or Masters," he wrote, referring to a Harvard training course in good government that other commissioners have taken. "The way I handled it allowed for it to appear improper, and in hindsight, I realize that the way I went about it was a mistake."

Under the new proposed rules, commissioners could use their budgets to pay for seminars, conferences, and self-improvement courses, though any expense over $5,000 would have to be approved by the board of commissioners. For classes that result in a degree, commissioners would be directed to the county's tuition reimbursement program, which pays for half of all tuition costs.

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