Bad Man on Campus

"Call Us Essential" is Miami-Dade Community College's catchy advertising slogan. And essential to that essential-ness, MDCC president Eduardo Padrón quietly resolved in January to use a lot of public money to buy a very symbolic sixteen-story building in downtown Miami. Specifically Padrón decided it was essential to give Jorge Mas Santos, the chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation, at least $15 million, and possibly $26 million, in tax money for the Freedom Tower. In 1997 the Mas family paid about four million dollars for the 75-year-old, steeple-topped wonder, beloved by many Cuban exiles because it sheltered refugees from the island in the Sixties and Seventies. So essential was the mustard-colored tower that in order to get it, the feisty and fastidious president had to ignore his tough and tenacious vice president of external affairs and general counsel, Adis Vila. Padrón fired her in March after she questioned aspects of the deal. But unlike other top administrators whom Padrón has summarily fired or demoted during his eight-year tenure, Vila left with a bang.

In April Vila, armed with two decades of experience in federal agencies, private corporations, and academia, made public her concerns. She maintains Padrón improperly appropriated public tax money for the Freedom Tower deal and then fired her after she had raised questions about it and other matters. "I do not follow the president's or anyone else's direction if doing so bends ethical or legal principles," she declared to the MDCC board of trustees in a six-page memo that also found its way to the press.

It is the latest episode of strife at one of the nation's biggest two-year institutes of higher learning, where administrators and faculty decry the secretive, autocratic manner in which Padrón rules but are afraid to speak for fear he will fire them. Vila says that after her departure from the college, Padrón sent an "emissary" asking her how much it would cost to keep her quiet. After she rejected the offer, Padrón sent another, who warned her she would never work in this town again.

Vila's troubles began last November. She began to question Padrón's strategy for buying the Freedom Tower, including the use of $9.5 million from a tax fund that was never supposed to be used for real estate. The president was going to move the money to the MDCC Foundation, the college's fundraising arm, where it would be redefined as a "private contribution." She also raised concerns about Padrón's decision to hire a lawyer who had worked for Mas Santos previously and was a close friend of an MDCC board member.

"My life became hell after that," Vila sighs.

The fund is called the Community Endowment and was created a decade ago with proceeds from a special county property tax. According to the 1992 voter referendum that authorized this fund, it was intended for "the maintenance, improvement, and expansion of occupational, vocational, and educational programs." Campaign literature and MDCC memoranda that circulated prior to the election specified the tax levy would not be used for the construction of buildings. After the ballot initiative passed, college lawyers reiterated throughout the Nineties that the endowment funds could not be used to construct or buy buildings.

But Padrón has been attempting to expand the meaning of "programs" since 1998. That year he tried to include "garage" as one of its definitions, because he wanted to use Community Endowment monies to build a parking facility at the Wolfson Campus in downtown Miami. That project never went forward because his legal department again told him the endowment couldn't be used for real estate. But last year, when the president learned that the Freedom Tower was for sale, he once more began to covet the endowment. The only things that stood in his way were eleven years of MDCC legal opinion and the meticulous attorney who was now his vice president for external affairs.

Vila thinks she also lost favor when she and college attorney Fleta Stamen informed Padrón the college may have illegally approved a no-bid $180,000 advertising contract with Zimmerman Partners Advertising. State law requires bids from at least two other companies.

In the end, the president called her to his office on March 13, informed her he was not renewing her one-year contract, and placed her on leave until it expires in July. "He had associate vice provost for human resources Bettie Thompson take me to my office," Vila says. "They would not even let me take my Palm Pilot, which I explained to them was my private property. They made me give them the key to my office, my phone, everything. They never allowed me to get another e-mail out of my computer." March 13 was also the day the chancellor of community colleges at the Florida Department of Education recommended that the state legislature match MDCC's $9.5 million. If the legislature approved, Padrón would be able to spend at least $19 million on the tower, his top real estate priority.

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Kirk Nielsen
Contact: Kirk Nielsen