Patrick A. Santeramo, Former Broward Teachers Union president, charged with racketeering, fraud

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.-- Former Broward Teachers Union president Patrick A. Santeramo turned himself in to Broward County authorities Tuesday to face 20 criminal charges that include racketeering and fraud.

Accompanied by lawyer Benedict Kuehne, Santeramo, 64, entered the Broward County Main Jail in Fort Lauderdale at 8:30 a.m. wearing jeans and a sweatshirt to be arrested and have his mug shot and fingerprints taken.

Santeramo led the union for a decade. He's charged with one count of conspiracy to commit racketeering; six counts of grand theft; three counts of organized scheme to defraud; five counts of campaign contribution violations and four counts of money laundering.

Santeramo, accompanied to the jail by his wife, Lynne Webb, declined comment.

Kuehne said his client plans to plead not guilty and released a written statement.

It read in part, "At no time has Pat acted dishonestly or in violation of his sacred trust to the teachers of Broward County. Unfortunately, in today's troubling political times, the rightous cause of organized labor is under assault."

The one-page statement also calls the charges "inaccurate."

TheBroward Sheriff's Officeis to hold a press conference Tuesday afternoon to discuss the investigation that Kuehne said took "way more than a year."

In his final year as BTU's leader, Santeramo, of Dania Beach, earned $189,000 until last July, when a 21 percent pay cut adjusted his salary to $149,310.

A former teacher, Santeramo led the 43-year-old union --that its website says has more than 13,000 members and is one of Florida's largest - until he was accused of mismanagement.

He resigned Dec. 6 while under fire from union membership.

In happier days, Santeramo liked to engage in political theater. He posed in front of the Broward School District headquarters in 2009 with four piglets that represented a fat school budget.

In 2010 during a protest for salary increases, he dangled handcuffs before reporters and said an image of prisoners' bracelets should appear on district letterhead.

The Broward County School District, where most union members work, has been plagued with financial scandals in recent years. A statewide grand jury found "gross mismanagement and corruption" involving school board employees, school board members and contractors.

In separate cases, two school board members — Beverly Gallagher and Stephanie Kraft — were charged with bribery. Gallagher is serving a federal prison sentence. Kraft has pleaded not guilty to that charge and three other offenses. Her case has not yet gone to trial.

"It's very disappointing, the whole thing that has happened," said Bizzy Jenkins, an art teacher at Cypress Bay High School in Weston. "Not only have we had problems with the School Board and the county itself wasting money and crime, then our union does it too. Where can we turn? What can we do?"

She said BTU members are already "leaving the union in droves, not only because of the impropriety, but the way money is being spent, and the fact we haven't gotten a raise. Some people feel, 'Why am I spending $600 [for union dues] a year? What am I getting for it?'"

An audit found the union, headquartered in Tamarac, spent $3.8 million in reserve funds over three years on political campaigns, rallies, protests and contract negotiations. It also didn't pass along increases in state and national union dues to members of Local 1975.

At one time one of the most powerful organized labor leaders in the region, Santeramo also was once a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, which audited and took control of the BTU after the scandal broke, and pledged reform at the start of 2012.

In a statement released by Broward State Attorney Michael Satz, Santeramo was described as having "unilateral control" of union business, including over contracts; vendor approval and distribution of union assets.

Authorities allege that between 2001 and January 2012, Santeramo diverted approximately $165,500 in union funds to himself through an invoice-kickback scheme with a construction company, Satz's statement reads.

Investigators allege 43 instances of racketeering, and that in one instance, the construction company billed BTU $89,295 for elevator repairs and gave $20,000 of the union's payment to Santeramo in cash.

Santeramo is also accused of making illegal campaign contributions. Twenty-five people, including BTU members, donated to candidates and Santeramo reimbursed them with BTU funds, the state attorney's office said.

He also improperly collected more than $121,848 by claiming false sick time and vacation time, according to officials.

If convicted of the racketeering and conspiracy to commit racketeering charges — which are first-degree felonies — Santeramo could face up to a 30 year sentence in Florida state prison, Satz's office said.

Broward Circuit Court Judge Ilona Holmes set Santeramo's bond at $480,000.
 
Copyright © 2012, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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