For those frustrated with the chronic dysfunction of our school district, television images this past April offered a tantalizing promise of change. Newscasts showed federal agents leaving the United Teachers of Dade headquarters with boxes of financial records. Then in July agents descended on one of the homes kept by UTD president Pasquale “Pat” Tornillo, hauling away more documents. It seemed like the rotten pinata of school corruption was about to burst open.
Instead we got Tornillo’s flimsy plea deal last week, a scant five months after an insider first alerted the feds to Tornillo’s uncontrolled use of public school teachers’ money. For his lavish spending on the union’s dime, Tornillo faces two years in a federal penitentiary and fines and restitution of about $675,000, not including roughly $200,000 in penalties. But he does not have to cooperate with authorities to help them further the investigation. Plus they granted him immunity from prosecution should other crimes be discovered after his plea. The man who was at the heart of school-district politics, who lobbied politicians and district officials on behalf of nearly 30,000 district employees, who pushed shaky health-insurance plans down the district’s gullet will not be required to explain who he worked with, how, and why. The man who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of union money on personal extravagances such as globe-trotting vacations, luxury hotels, and designer clothing and jewelry will not have to tell investigators why he was never questioned about those expenses by UTD staff in the four decades he ran the place…
Because everything was recorded on paper — receipts, invoices, tax returns — and because the case didn’t rely on witnesses who might be discredited by defense attorneys, there was no need to rush the investigation. And the fact that Tornillo’s wife Donna was also implicated meant federal prosecutors had substantial leverage to force Tornillo, a vulnerable 77 years old, to cooperate.
But they didn’t. Instead they agreed to back off and not prosecute Donna Tornillo. Miami’s relatively new U.S. Attorney, Marcos Jimenez, declared at a press conference that no one can be forced to cooperate. Many in law enforcement were mystified by Jimenez’s comment and the way he handled the case. “I spent more than twenty years of my life forcing people to cooperate,” says a former federal prosecutor who asked not to be named. “You go after their wife. You go after their dog. It just seems bizarre to me they didn’t do that here. I don’t know if I’m missing something.”
A similarly flummoxed former FBI agent also wonders aloud about the arrangement. “I have never seen a sweetheart deal like that without some sort of cooperation,” says the ex-agent, who also asked for confidentiality. “They had this rock solid. There was no way out for him. There has to be something else going on…”