It took only hours after Charlie Crist chose his running mate last week for Republicans to go on the offensive.
In his bid to unseat Gov. Ron DeSantis, Crist picked Karla Hernández-Mats as his lieutenant governor. She is a South Florida resident, Hispanic woman and president of the United Teachers of Dade, the largest teacher’s union in the state.
But, as Republicans were quick to highlight, Hernández-Mats had a link to a former union member with a troubled history.
She rose through union ranks with Wendell Nibbs, who is now a convicted sexual predator serving an eight-year prison sentence for three counts of sexual battery against minors.
Even if Republicans hadn’t made predatory teachers a major campaign issue this year, the link between Nibbs and Hernández-Mats would have been a tempting target.
Four days after Hernández-Mats was tapped, her association with Nibbs threatened to overshadow the early stages of the post-primary governor’s race.
In a Tuesday email to the Tampa Bay Times, the Crist campaign did not answer questions from a reporter about vetting Hernández-Mats while playing down her association with Nibbs.
“Our campaign is proud to have a first-generation American and Latina woman on the ballot alongside Charlie,” a spokesperson wrote. “Karla has dedicated her life to fighting for teachers, students, and her Miami-Dade community.”
Nibbs, a P.E. teacher at Brownsville Middle in Miami for much of his career, was in the same union caucus as Hernández-Mats and served as the school’s building steward, or union liaison, for eight years. Between 2004 and 2016, he faced five sexual misconduct complaints from students and one from a teacher, all of which were deemed unfounded by the district.
In the Tuesday email to the Times responding to questions about Hernández-Mats’ association with Nibbs, a Crist spokesperson minimized their affiliation by stating Nibbs was just one of 800 building stewards in the union.
Yet their own union roles, along with social media posts at the time, suggest an association closer than a distant acquaintanceship.
Hernández-Mats served as secretary-treasurer on the union’s executive board from 2013 to 2016. During that time, the union represented Nibbs in some of the sexual misconduct complaint cases, which were deemed unfounded for lack of evidence. The union plays no role in investigating a teacher. When it represents a member, the union only makes sure proper procedure is followed during the hearing of complaints.
In 2016, Nibbs ran to be a union delegate and Hernández-Mats was elected president. They were part of the same caucus slate, a team of about 100 delegates who campaign together with shared objectives, much like a political party.
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That summer, the district ruled that Nibbs had acted inappropriately toward a student — the first time in 12 years that he had been reprimanded.
Far from being just one of 800 union stewards who worked with Hernández-Mats, as the Crist campaign asserts, Nibbs traveled to the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee to rally with other union leaders, including Hernández-Mats. During this period, Nibbs played a role as an “attack dog” toward union members who questioned leadership, according to two union representatives quoted in 2019 in the Miami Herald.
Several photos at the time, some of which show Nibbs smiling with Hernández-Mats and other union leaders, suggest an easy familiarity. Many of those leaders, including Hernández-Mats’ second-in-command, left glowing remarks about Nibbs on social media.
Hernández-Mats has served as the union president ever since her 2016 election, winning reelection twice, the last time in February.
Meanwhile, things changed dramatically for Nibbs. Even before he was elected union delegate, a Miami-Dade Schools police detective in 2015 was assigned to investigate him. The detective reopened old complaints and received new testimony and allegations.
As part of that investigation, a total of nine female students at Brownsville Middle accused Nibbs of sexual assault or inappropriate behavior of a sexual nature. One student said in a sworn statement that she had intercourse with Nibbs five times during her eighth grade year. Another girl told the detective she was forcibly raped by Nibbs in his classroom.
Nibbs was arrested in November 2017 on two counts of sexual battery on a child. He was arrested again while awaiting trial in March 2019 on two more charges of sexual battery of a minor in familial or custodial authority. Prosecutors agreed to drop more than a dozen other charges against Nibbs in exchange for a guilty plea. He pleaded guilty to a total of three charges.
Hernández-Mats has mostly avoided the topic in recent years. Asked about Nibbs in 2019 before his trial, she would not clarify his involvement in the union that she led.
She assigned any responsibility for Nibbs to the district, saying then through a spokesperson that if employees are hired by the school system, they are deemed to be qualified and safe to be in a school environment, “as far as (United Teachers of Dade) and other district employees are concerned.”
After the Herald published the story in 2019 that detailed the charges against Nibbs, Hernández-Mats publicly denounced her former union delegate.
“It is abominable to say that I would consciously and willingly associate myself with someone that is being accused of such repulsive actions,” Hernández-Mats said on Twitter. “He may have fooled us all, but his accusers must be heard.”
In the days after Crist’s announcement last week of his running mate, Republicans, including DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw, resurfaced photos of Hernández-Mats and Nibbs together.
DeSantis ended an official state function, a Tuesday governor’s news conference, by calling out his new political opponent. He said Hernández-Mats was a “teacher’s union boss” and that Nibbs was one of the union’s “top henchmen.”
Hernández-Mats and her union “cared more about the power of their union than they did about the best interests of these kids. That is disgraceful,” DeSantis said. “You do not put union politics ahead of middle school students who are in danger of being sexually abused.”
In its email Tuesday to the Times, the Crist campaign said that Hernández-Mats had nothing to do with investigating Nibbs. The email deflected DeSantis’ criticism by mentioning U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Panhandle Republican who is not charged but faces a U.S. Justice Department investigation into sex trafficking allegations involving underage girls.
“Does Ron DeSantis have a comment on the allegations against accused child predator Matt Gaetz?” the Crist campaign said. “This is just another attempt by DeSantis’s GOP to distract voters and the media from the damage he’s done to our state.”