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Ethics panel finds grounds that Temple Terrace mayor exaggerated degree

The state commission found there’s probable cause that Mel Jurado directed employees to embellish her diploma-mill certificate on the city website.

TAMPA — The Florida Commission on Ethics has found probable cause that Temple Terrace Mayor Mel Jurado misused her public office by directing city workers to list exaggerated education credentials in her biography on the city’s website.

For almost a year after Jurado’s swearing-in as mayor in 2017, a page on the Temple Terrace website said she had earned her Ph.D. from the University of Illinois. But a 2018 Tampa Bay Times investigation revealed that it was from LaSalle University, a notorious diploma mill in Mandeville, La., closed down by the FBI in 1996.

Jurado, who faces an election in November, now can choose to face a full evidentiary hearing on the findings or reach a settlement agreement with the Commission Advocate, who acts as prosecutor for the state agency.

Related: In Temple Terrace she's Dr. Mel, but the mayor's Ph.D. came from a diploma mill

The commission voted 5-3 this week to accept the recommendation of probable cause from Commission Advocate Elizabeth Miller. The commission can recommend penalties that range from public censure and reprimand to suspension or removal from office. The most common recommendation is a civil penalty, up to $10,000 per violation. Penalty recommendations are imposed by the governor.

“Respondent’s actions violated her oath of office (and) thus, were inconsistent with the proper performance of her public duties and corrupt in that she was deceitful in order to bolster or inflate her education credentials to benefit her position in society,” Miller wrote.

The commission began investigating after receiving identical complaints from 21 citizens about the posting of “false credentials.” The complaint also questioned whether this claim had benefited Jurado’s human resources, training and consulting firm.

Jurado’s attorney, Mark Levine, said he is seeking a resolution with the commission but is prepared to take the matter to a full hearing to clear his client.

“We do not believe that is a violation of the ethics code because it didn’t serve a benefit to her or a third party and it wasn’t done corruptly,” Levine said.

Jurado was awarded her Ph.D. in 1996 just months before the FBI indicted the owner of LaSalle University on charges of fraud and tax evasion. Investigators found that the correspondence school had upward of 6,000 students even though there were never more than 10 people grading papers. In many instances, the people grading were unqualified to assess the papers assigned them, the indictment states.

In a response Jurado sent to the commission in June, she cited a 1994 Louisiana appellate court ruling that the school was legal at the time she attended. It was sent from her “AskDrMel” email address.

She previously told the Times she completed her Ph.D. by mail, including a 460-page dissertation that she showed reporters but would not let them photocopy. She said she had no idea the school was a diploma mill.

One year after the school was closed, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Orleans sent letters to all LaSalle students offering them a portion of the money seized if they returned their diplomas and transcripts. Jurado said she did not receive such a letter and was never offered a refund.

The controversy over her credentials led to calls for Jurado’s resignation at Temple Terrace council meetings. Her only response was to remove references to the Ph.D. from her city biography web page.

Jurado has long been active in local Republican politics. Her Facebook page includes photos of her alongside former Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam and former Attorney General Pam Bondi.

She has served on more than a dozen state and local boards and twice has received appointments from the Florida governor. Her service includes five years on the Florida Boxing Commission and nine years on the University of South Florida Athletic Association board of directors. For about 15 months, she was director of the Florida Office of Early Learning, a state agency that at the time had a $1 billion-plus budget.

The Times investigation also revealed that on two applications for government positions, Jurado claimed to have two master’s degrees — in psychology and sports medicine — from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The school had no record of her earning a sports medicine master’s degree.

Her page on LinkedIn, a networking website for professionals, said her Ph.D. came from LaSalle but included a logo and a link to a different La Salle University, a well-regarded Catholic university in Philadelphia.

One year ago, the Florida Department of Health ordered Jurado to stop referring to herself as a psychologist and fined her $814 after an investigation found she is not a licensed health professional.

Its investigation found that Jurado had described herself as an “industrial-organizational psychologist” on her website and in campaign materials.

Related: State officials tell Temple Terrace mayor Mel Jurado to stop calling herself a 'psychologist'