Santeramo’s stronghold over union officials led to lax financial oversight
Nov. 20, 2011, Miami Herald
By By Laura Figueroa
The launch of state investigations, the results of an internal audit and questions from dues-paying members of the Broward Teacher’s Union indicate that President Pat Santeramo held a virtual stronghold over the union’s finances, with little oversight.
Two of the union’s key finance officers — a longtime bookkeeper and its comptroller for the past year — wouldn’t comment on how expenditures went unchecked. The union has hired a top criminal defense attorney to look into its exposure after allegations that Santeramo reimbursed union employees and their relatives a combined $19,500 for campaign contributions.
Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. attorney, is representing the union and said he will work with the union’s leadership to establish guidelines for it’s future political finance activity.
In 10 years at the helm, Santeramo, a former music and physical education teacher, has surrounded himself with allies on the executive board and staff.
BTU elections are structured so that candidates must run on slates — a team of candidates — making it difficult for outsiders or anyone looking to run independently to get on the board.
“It’s set up for longevity,” said Phil Van Pelt, a retired Coral Springs High School teacher who ran for the executive board on a losing slate of opposition candidates in 2001. “You have a situation where you set up presidents for life.”
The fact that the union’s executive board is composed largely of Santeramo’s supporters makes it difficult for those with questions to speak out, he said.
Van Pelt, who previously served as president of the Classroom Teachers Association, a defunct organization that represented teachers before BTU was established in 1983, said that board members and concerned teachers have turned to him for advice when their inquiries into union budgeting were shot down.
“The budget items are kept in the inner circle,” Van Pelt said. “If you disagreed with them, you were ousted. If you had specific questions, they were brushed aside.”
That changed in August, when a small contingent of the union’s 27-member executive board pressed the Florida Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers to look into the union’s finances. The AFT conducted an audit of 2009-11, and its findings of possible mismanagement prompted four board members to call for Santeramo’s expulsion.
Santeramo has referred all questions to his attorney, Mike Moskowitz, who says all allegations against his client are untrue and that budget reports were readily available.
“Bottom line: These people had the information they needed,” Moskowitz said of the union’s executive board. “They can say they didn’t know the specifics, but perhaps they acted as many board members of organizations do, and they didn’t pay attention.”
The audit also flagged $129,000 in undocumented credit card expenses from Santeramo over the past two years and found that he signed off on at least $25,000 in checks made payable to cash with no paper trail.
Moskowitz said Santeramo will provide valid explanations for all the expenditures — noting the credit cards were used for office expenses like computers.
Meanwhile, the Broward State Attorney’s office and the Florida Elections Commission are looking into whether Santeramo broke campaign finance laws by reimbursing 26 union employees and their relatives for a combined $19,500 in campaign contributions to Hillary Clinton and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink.
BTU spokesman John Ristow said the union’s new financial manager, appointed by the AFT, plans to work on the local chapter’s financial transparency.
“I know that concerns have been expressed about that, and moving forward, the new financial manager will be working with members who have volunteered to work on committees to develop specific and strict policies,” Ristow said.
Pay raises for Santeramo and his employees were often approved unanimously, meriting brief mention in meeting minutes made available to teachers on the BTU website.
Last year, 12 union staffers in an office of 29 earned more than $100,000, according to the union’s financial filings with the state’s Public Employees Relations Commission.
Between 2002, when he was elected president, and 2010, Santeramo’s salary increased 50 percent. While a teacher with 10 years of experience in Broward County makes $40,000, Santeramo earned up to $189,000.
Santeramo is married to Lynne Webb, the president of the Pasco County teachers union, and together they own three houses, according to property records. The couple purchased a two-story home in Sewell’s Point , between the St. Lucie River and Intracoastal Waterway, for $574,000 in 2007, though it is currently valued at $365,930.
Santeramo lives in a Dania Beach condo he purchased in 1988 now valued at $83,000; and Webb resides in their single-family Land-o-Lakes home in Pasco County valued at $148,000.
Santeramo will also be able to collect on two pensions. As a teacher-on-leave, he still receives a school district contribution to his state pension, which is roughly 4 percent for Broward teachers, and he also receives a 22 percent contribution toward his BTU retirement plan. Last year, $24,189 in union dues went towards Santeramo’s union pension.
The AFT audit, an internal document obtained by The Miami Herald, but still not fully released to teachers, blames poor bookkeeping as part of the problem.
The review found that former bookkeeper Arlene Marotta’s credit card expenses totaled $355,729 over the two years. Nearly one-third of those charges — $96,094 — lacked documentation.
Reached by phone and asked about the union’s finances, Marotta said she had no comment.
Bookkeeping improved starting with January records handled by the union’s new comptroller, auditors noted.
In November 2010, Santeramo hired former Cooper City Commissioner Linda Ferrara to oversee the organization’s finances.
Ferrara had previously served on various school district committees, appointed by former School Board Member Beverly Gallagher to a district committee tasked with recommending millions in contracts to the School Board.
That committee has since been restructured in the wake of Gallagher’s 2009 arrest on federal corruption charges. An undercover FBI sting found that Gallagher accepted kickbacks to curry favor for companies seeking construction work from the district.
Ferrara and Gallagher’s relationship was referenced in the FBI complaint against Gallagher, noting that both attended a celebration dinner, where the winner of a contract bid facilitated by Gallagher toasted the group’s “team effort.”
Though questioned by federal investigators, Ferrara was never implicated in the sting that brought down two other Broward County elected officials — former Miramar City Commissioner Fitzroy Salesman, and former Broward County Vice Mayor Josephus Eggelletion.
Ferrara was also on the Cooper City Commission in 2006, when the Florida Department of Law Enforcement opened an inquiry to determine whether the commission violated the state’s sunshine laws, by having drinks and meals before council meetings on the city’s dime.
State law mandates that if business is discussed by two or more elected officials, it must be done at a public meeting. The commission denied discussing city business at the outings, which made some taxpayers question why they were footing the bill. The FDLE eventually cleared the commission of any criminal wrongdoing, but voters responded by voting Ferrara and another incumbent out of office in the following election.
Asked about the union’s finances by phone on Friday, Ferrera said she couldn’t comment.
The AFT is expected to name an administrator to temporarily oversee the union’s day-to-day operation this week.
Santeramo will have the chance to make his case before the union’s executive board on Dec. 7, when a closed-door hearing will be held to determine if he will be permanently removed as president.