If you haven’t already seen the “must-read” article from the Naples Daily News linked to in Monday’s Sunburn — check it out now.
Here’s why: Arek Sarkissian stumbled onto a big scandal, but not the scandal he wrote about.
Sarkissian’s reporting focuses on Miami-based lobbyist Fausto Gomez for his involvement in Education Management Services (EMS), an educational curriculum company owned and operated by his wife, Alina.
It’s revealed that EMS cleared a million-dollar profit from a contract to deliver anti-hazing curriculum to Florida Polytechnic University. Fewer than 100 students took the course, but for the third time (Sarkissian has produced versions of the same story) he never bothers to explain how that is EMS’s fault.
Never mind that EMS delivered its anti-hazing course to the university — as per the contract terms — and had no authority to compel students to take the course. That was incumbent upon the school.
Instead, Sarkissian whistles his way past that thorny problem, while popping Gomez for – gasp – not only being a lobbyist but also for EMS having the audacity to spend the income it received.
Perhaps the lowest point in Sarkissian’s story is where he attempts to show that EMS used the profits to pay off a $50,000 line of credit as if it was somehow wrong to pay off debts with the income a company receives. After all, if a state employee cashes his (rightfully-earned, taxpayer-funded) paycheck and chooses to pay off his personal car loan, should that private transaction also call for front-page coverage at the Naples Daily News?
Not only is the line of credit attack on EMS intellectually dishonest, but it’s also factually false.
In the story, Sarkissian admits that Gomez told him he paid off the line of credit years earlier. When Sarkissian demanded proof, Gomez refused — he was not about to turn over EMS’s private bank records and account information to a newspaper.
The real questions surrounding this case have nothing to do with Education Management Services, but everything to do with the broken state university system and how it pocketed millions of dollars that should have gone to combat hazing.
In 2012, the SUS issued an auditor report calling for programs to reduce hazing incidents across the state and calling on the Board of Governors to take action. Since then, Florida’s state universities have done literally nothing about the problem.
In fact, the Tallahassee Democrat reported that since 2015 there have been at least 63 serious hazing incidents even though state lawmakers appropriated millions of dollars to address the problem over the last four years.
No, the real scandal here isn’t that EMS was paid a million dollars for its anti-hazing product. The scandal is that the state university system paid for it, and didn’t use the product at all.
Sarkissian should ask himself how he would have written this story: State lawmakers appropriated $100,000 for a university to buy a car from Ford Motor Company, but instead, the school pocketed $75,000 and used the rest to purchase a car. Then they had the car delivered to an empty lot, locked the doors and let it rust away.
Would Sarkissian smear Ford for delivering a perfectly drivable car that the university simply refused to drive? Of course not. So why did the NDN go after Alina Gomez and not the universities?
Since Gomez’s day job is as a lobbyist, he is low-hanging fruit for public scorn from readers of the Naples Daily News.
Meanwhile, the real scandal is a staggering sum of taxpayer money pocketed by Florida’s state university system, which has siphoned off $2.2 million over the past four years from the Legislature to cover “administrative costs” of a hazing program.
That, too, is scandalous, since the hazing programs were purchased as turnkey solutions and the only administration needed from the school was to require students to actually take the course.
Clearly, that didn’t happen.
Through all of this, Alina Gomez, in a show of good faith, told the Legislature that EMS would make its anti-hazing program available to students across the entire state university system this coming school year, at no added cost to taxpayers. But just as before, the state university system hasn’t lifted a finger to take EMS up on the offer, let alone do anything else to address the hazing issue.
Florida universities cannot just pocket $2.2 million, while blaming a lone vendor when that vendor has no power to force students to use the provided curriculum and expect to get away with it.