Pat Santeramo enjoyed the perks of running a union. Unfortunately, evidence suggests he couldn’t tell legal from illegal ones. Last Tuesday, July 10, Santeramo, former president of the Broward Teachers Union (BTU), the Broward County, Florida affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), surrendered to county authorities in downtown Fort Lauderdale to face charges that he misappropriated nearly $300,000 from the 11,500-member union. Local leaders say, if anything, that figure is well on the low side. His lawyer, Benedict Kuehne, denies all 19 charges, which include racketeering, grand theft, fraud, money laundering, and illegal campaign contributions. “We believe that Pat Santeramo will be vindicated of those accusations,” said Kuehne. His client is free on $480,000 bond.
Union Corruption Update during the past decade has documented extensive impropriety among AFT local officials and employees, the most egregious cases being in Washington, D.C. and Dade County, Florida. Broward County, immediately north of Dade County, is a likely addition to the list. State prosecutors allege Pat Santeramo, now 64, a resident of Dania Beach, Fla., until his permanent departure at the end of last year illegally enriched himself at the expense of union members in three ways: 1) obtained $165,500 in kickbacks from a vendor who maintained union headquarters in Tamarac, Fla.; 2) received $121,848 in improper reimbursements for unused sick and vacation pay; and 3) used union credit cards for personal expenses. The charges follow an audit conducted in response to complaints by local members, especially former BTU executive board member Jeanne Albertus.
As for the kickbacks, court documents indicate that during 2006-11 a BTU contractor, David Esposito, sent the union inflated invoices for various building maintenance services such as plumbing repairs, light bulb changes and ant extermination. Once the union paid its bills, Esposito allegedly rewarded Santeramo with cash payments in amounts ranging from $1,000 to $20,000. “I didn’t think anybody could be infected with that many ants,” said Broward County Sheriff Al Lamberti. “With every bill, there was something tacked on for him.” The alleged phony sick and vacation time reimbursements worth $121,848 represented more than two-thirds of the total $174,538 payout he received following his resignation under a cloud of suspicion. He was charged with using forged documents. As for illegal credit card purchases, they include $1,638 at Shell service stations and $1,595 at Home Depot stores.
In addition to obtaining benefits under false pretenses, Santeramo and numerous other union members and associates reportedly made political donations who then were illegally reimbursed by Santeramo out of union coffers. These misdemeanors occurred during presidential, gubernatorial and school board campaigns. At least five members of local and national American Federation of Teachers unions this year have received probation. Three belonged to the Broward Teachers Union; one worked for the AFT; and the other since has taken a job with the Palm Beach County Classroom Teachers Association.
When aggressive as well as illegal spending is taken into account, the true cost of mismanagement may run into the millions. Members of the BTU executive board alleged, following the release of an audit late last year, that freewheeling spending, legal or otherwise, by Pat Santeramo and other officials caused the board to dip into $3.8 million of union reserves to meet expenses. Santeramo, among other things, received a $900 per month car allowance – ironic given his frequent denunciations of his nemesis, former Broward County School Superintendent Jim Notter, for allegedly doing the same thing. The audit concluded: “(Santeramo’s) credit card expenses over the two-year period examined (from 2009-11) totaled $128,634. The majority of the charges are lacking backup documentation.” He wasn’t the only BTU official with a plastic addiction. Another former official, Arlene Marotta, during this period rang up more than $355,000 in credit card expenses of which more than $96,000 had either no documentation or proof of any relationship to union business.
In spite of all this, the Broward Teachers Union is confident it can collect any and all stolen funds. Kendall Coffey, a BTU lawyer, remarked that the union will use information in the charges and supporting documentation to “take whatever action may be appropriate to try to recover funds.” Santeramo’s termination agreement, he noted, contained a “specific carve-out” that allows the union to collect funds he obtained through fraud. “We now have the benefit of a very extensive police investigation, which we suspect may well serve as a road map for our recovery efforts.” Santeramo’s lawyer, Benedict Kuehne, has a different view of things. Noting that his client has no prior criminal history, Kuehne stated: “The charges involve the claim that Pat benefited personally from financial dealings of the Broward Teachers Union, that he took money that he was not entitled to. We deny that. Pat earned a decent, honorable living, doing the work that the president of the BTU is supposed to do.” He added Santeramo was entitled to all payments for unused sick and vacation time and that his campaign contributions were “rather insignificant.”
American Federation of Teachers top brass haven’t been waiting for a trial to happen. Last November they appointed one of its vice presidents, John Tarka, as administrator of the Broward local after granting the affiliate’s request to be placed under trusteeship. Tarka only a few months earlier had retired as president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. AFT President Randi Weingarten remarked at the time that Tarka “will help restore the trust and integrity that is necessary to regain the confidence of the members and the broader community they serve.” BTU members certainly hope so. They currently pay about $600 in annual dues. Given that a rate hike is almost certain, they want their money’s worth.