It’s really an old story. You’ll find Scathing Purple Musings has covered it for quite some time. Several journalists throughout Florida have as well. This from yesterday’s Miami Herald reporters Christina Veiga and Kristen M. Clark:
TALLAHASSEE A familiar face is back at the center of a perennial tug-of-war in the Florida Legislature between privately-managed charter schools and district-run public schools over taxpayer money for construction projects:
Erik Fresen, the Miami Republican who controls the purse for education funding in the Florida House. His connections to the charter school industry continue to raise questions about conflicts of interest.
He has fast-tracked a mid-session bill that would limit school district spending on capital needs. It would also force districts to share their construction tax money with charters.
Fresen is a $150,000-a-year land consultant for Civica, an architecture firm with a specialty in building charter schools. Many of those schools were built for Academica — which has been described as the largest charter school management company in Florida and which counts Fresen’s brother-in-law and sister as executives.
Fresen says he simply wants to hold districts accountable for the money they spend and ensure equitable funding for charter schools, which are classified as public schools.
“Nothing in this bill has anything to do with anything that I do for a living,” he said.
But Fresen, 39, is dogged by questions that his goal isn’t so well-intentioned. His ties to the charter school industry — well-documented during his eight years in the Legislature — have long rankled public school supporters and made him the subject of at least one ethics complaint since he was elected in 2008.
Fresen is no stranger to ethical challenges as the Florida Ethics Commission found probable cause to that he had failed to properly disclose his annual net worth, assets, and liabilities from 2008 to 2011. The bi-partisan commission cleared Fresen six months later. But Academica, the for-profit charter school company he is associated with and which employs his sister remains under investigation by the United States Department of Education for irregular financial practices.
Fresen is no the only republican in the Florida legislature with close ties to Academica. Doral University is run by Academica. It’s chief operating officer is Rep. Manny Diaz, Jr, who according to the Miami Herald it is his “whose legislation is the vehicle for Fresen’s plan” Doral’s former president is Sen. Anitere Flores who once served as then-Governor Jeb Bush’s Education Policy Chief. Flores lists this on her website, but not her former position with Academica.
All three Miami republican lawmakers have endorsed Jeb Bush’s presidential bid and serve of his Miami-Dade leadership team.
As governor, Bush visited Academica schools several times, his emails show, including a trip to a campus of a Mater Academy school in 2006. His son, Jeb Bush Jr., was elected to serve as the chair of the nonprofit board another Academica school group, Somerset Academy, though he later withdrew his name.
In Jeb Bush’s first set of campaign videos, including one released yesterday, there is no place more prominently featured than the classroom. Oft-repeated reels of footage show Bush, known as Florida’s “education governor,” speaking to rooms full of hand-waving elementary students, leaning over a girl’s shoulder as she works on the computer, and sitting down for a discussion with smiling boys in ties.
Many of those students wear the uniforms of Mater Academy of International Studies; others are students at Somerset Academy South Miami, where Jeb Bush’s campaign was seen filming earlier this month, according to Politico. Almost all of the classrooms have something in common: they are at schools operated by Academica, the state’s largest for-profit charter school management company.
Last fall, presidential candidate Jeb Bush vowed to end crony capitalism if elected president in an opinion piece published in the Washington Examiner:
As president of the United States, I will use all the powers of my office to disrupt the political culture of a dysfunctional Washington, D.C. We need to clean house and it must start by eliminating the crony capitalism that is pervasive throughout the federal government. There are tens of billions of dollars of corporate welfare subsidies tucked into the federal budget. An honest effort to cut the deficit should start here.
Bush draws skepticism on such a claim from influential conservative writer Jim Geraghty in National Review:
The problem is that if you define “crony capitalism” as the revolving door between public office and lucrative private-sector consulting positions, helping those powerful institutions navigate the world of government regulations and influence . . . well, Bush isn’t quite the ideal figure to lead a crusade against that world.
After leaving the Florida governorship, Bush set up a consulting firm, Jeb Bush & Associates. A review of the firm’s records revealed “a third of the firm’s $33 million in proceeds from 2007 to 2013 came from banking giants Lehman Bros. and Barclays.” One of the firm’s clients was the now-bankrupt fiber-panel manufacturer InnoVida, whose CEO pled guilty to two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering.
Bush was reportedly among those who first raised questions about the company’s sketchy finances and filings. But in March 2013, Jeb Bush & Associates paid $270,000 to Soneet R. Kapila, the trustee attempting to return money to InnoVida investors who were defrauded. Bush’s firm admitted no wrongdoing, and asserted that it merely “provided services in good faith for reasonably equivalent value.” The bankruptcy filing said the firm reached the agreement “in order to avoid the expense and uncertainty of litigation, to facilitate the Trustee’s timely conclusion of the Chapter 7 proceedings, and to enhance the funds payable to creditors.”
The younger Bush’s subtle withdrawal from the Academica board of directors coupled with Flores efforts to distance herself from the same shady charter school company don’t erase the fact that this worst sort of crony capitalism began while he was still governor. Its one in which those who write the laws are actively writing then for financial gain of the people who pay them well as employees.
With Bush using footage his visits to Academica to supports his presidential campaign, he’s giving tacit approval to the crony capitalism game being played by his political allies. The scandal comes in the fact that the republican-dominated legislature which Bush still dominates gives tacit approval.
Florida has broad voting conflict laws for state officers. Legislators are only required to abstain from voting in narrow situations where they will be directly affected by new law or regulations. If a proposal could affect a state officer indirectly — through a family member or an employer — the elected official is allowed to vote.
Katy Sorenson, who served on the Miami-Dade commission for 16 years and now runs The Good Government Initiative, called state ethics laws a “recipe for corruption.”
Local elected officials are held to much more stringent standards than state officials. County commissioners and city council members can’t even discuss proposals that impact them directly or indirectly. They have to leave the dais.
“That’s a clear line and that protects the public because, well, it goes to public trust,” Sorenson said. “It protects the public from having their elected officials, shall we say, profit from public office.”
The state’s laws are broadly written on purpose. Serving in the part-time Legislature pays only about $30,000, so most lawmakers also have day jobs and narrow conflict-of-interest laws could become a burden.
“That might mean a lot of legislators wouldn’t be able to vote,” said Ben Wilcox, research director of the government watchdog Integrity Florida. “But I think it would give the public some assurance that legislators aren’t voting on bills that are going to benefit them.”
Sorenson pointed out that local elected officials tend to be paid even less. County commissioners are paid $6,000, she said. Still, they are held to more stringent ethics requirements.
“The Legislature has passed that law in Tallahassee,” Sorenson said. “They exempted themselves but applied it to local governments.”
Jeb Bush is in South Carolina right now, a state well-familiar with charter school scandals. During tonight’s debate it will be fair to wonder how many Floridians will smirk if Bush rails against crony capitalism or he touts his record as a benevolent education reformer.