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Temple Terrace Mayor Mel Jurado resigns while facing likely fine over online bio

She misused her office by directing employees to post exaggerated education credentials, the state Ethics Commission found.
Mayor Mel Jurado presides at a City Council meeting in Temple Terrace City Hall. [Times (2018)]

TAMPA — Temple Terrace Mayor Mel Jurado is resigning her office ahead of a likely fine by a state ethics panel for allowing misleading information about her academic record to be posted on a city website.

Jurado, a former director of the Florida Office of Early Learning, will resign effective May 7, according to a statement released by the city Friday afternoon. Her term was set to end in November. Vice Mayor Andy Ross has assumed the responsibilities of city of Temple Terrace mayor.

Her decision comes after the Florida Commission on Ethics in January found probable cause that Jurado misused her public office by directing Temple Terrace employees to post exaggerated education credentials in her online biography.

“After focusing on the future path I want my life to take, and reviewing my responsibilities as mayor, I have decided that continuing to serve as mayor is not conducive to the direction I’ve decided to go,” Jurado said in a statement.

Although she will remain mayor for two more months, Jurado said it has been decided that she will have a "diminished role in representing the city as mayor through this transition.”

For almost a year after her swearing-in as mayor in 2017, a page on the Temple Terrace website said Jurado 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.

The investigation led to 21 citizens complaining to the state ethics agency that the public had been misled and questioning whether the inflated biography had benefited Jurado’s career running a human resources, training and consulting firm.

Related: Temple Terrace mayor may face ethics sanction for misstating diploma-mill degree

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.

Jurado told reporters that she was not aware the correspondence school was a diploma mill. She completed her Ph.D. by mail, including a 460-page dissertation that she showed reporters but would not let them photocopy.

Her diploma was awarded 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 to them, the indictment states. Some grades were awarded simply based on the weight of the papers submitted.

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

The Times investigation led to calls for her resignation, which she initially ignored. In January 2019, she defended her academic record at a council meeting. That included a positive review of her dissertation by Susan McMillan, a retired professor from the University of South Florida. Last year, Jurado ordered city staffers to return the title “Dr.” to her online biography, although it no longer lists any of her education credentials.

She told the ethics commission investigator that serving as mayor — a job that pays $239 per month — had made it harder for her to operate the Profitable Group, a consultancy business she ran jointly with her husband, Rod Jurado, until his death in June.

The Florida Department of Health in January 2019 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.

Jurado’s attorney, Mark Levine, said she had not informed him of her resignation

“She has told me she has considered this,” he said. “She is so over this. ... The lady didn’t benefit one bit from whatever her bio said.”