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Grand Jury questions county workers' tuition program

FLORIDA -- Cops chasing law degrees. Court clerks deconstructing the Old Testament. A firefighter studying medicine offshore and acupuncture in California. When it comes to the educational dreams of Miami-Dade County employees, there is no limit to what taxpayers are required to finance.

Last November a Miami-Dade grand jury charged four employees with organized fraud, official misconduct and grand theft for allegedly doctoring grades on their transcripts to qualify for reimbursements.

Jurors wrote: 'there must be sufficient safeguards in place so that an unscrupulous few cannot take us, the taxpayers in Miami-Dade County, for the proverbial `ride.' ''

The indictments followed an inspector general survey of 275 reimbursement files that found 83 employees who were overpaid, most because the county did not know about grants or scholarships they got. The county reimbursed 1,500 employees in 2005.

A Miami-Dade employee is entitled to reimbursement  for any class that pertains to one of the thousands of job titles on the county payroll. Miami-Dade taxpayers foot 50 percent of employees' tuition, no matter where they go to school or how much it costs. Last year, the cost for Miami-Dade taxpayers was $2.6 million.

According to an article from the Miami Herald some employees take greater advantage of of county's tuition program than others. For example:

  • Firefighter Danny Whu received more than $40,000 for a medical degree, the county paid $3,300 more in May for him to take a course called ''Medical Acupuncture for Physicians'' at the University of California, Los Angeles. Whu, makes $164,000 per year, working on the fire department's Homeland Security Team.
  • County building manager Alain Hernandez who was hired in July 2005, has begun a $60,000 masters degree in International Business at the University of Miami.
  • Court Clerk Jennifer Cates, 34, has embarked on a $60,000 law degree from Nova Southeastern.
  • In 2004-2005, the county reimbursed media relations manager Cynthia Martinez, 28, nearly $10,000 toward the $20,000 annual tuition for a University of Miami Masters of Public Relations. The Office of the Inspector General found that more than half her tuition was covered by a grant she received for working as a teaching assistant. So she was overpaid $5,130.
  • Recently fired court clerk Tangalh Eason, who was pursuing a degree in Human Services at St. Thomas University, where taxpayers contributed more than $1,000 per class.

Some employees use the reimbursements for training that is immediately applicable to their jobs. In April, firefighter Alvaro Renteria took a seminar in confined space rescue. Taxpayers' cost: $175.

Read the full article in The Bradenton Herald.

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