Orlando Sentinel | By Jeffrey Schweers | August 30, 2022
TALLAHASSEE — Charlie Crist’s running mate Karla Hernandez-Mats should be disqualified from running for office, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday, after alleging the Miami teachers union chief protected a middle school teacher convicted of sexually abusing several students for years. The Crist camp called it “a lie.”
“They had their top henchman … sexually abusing children for years and years,” DeSantis said at the end of a news conference in Fort Pierce to award a job training grant. “But they cared more about the power of their union than they did about the best interests of these kids. That is disgraceful. … I think that’s disqualifying to be in any political office much less than governor of the state of Florida.”
DeSantis left without giving reporters a chance for a followup about his accusations, which were first posted over the weekend on Twitter by Helen Aguirre Ferre, executive director of the Republican Party of Florida.
“It’s a lie. And to top it off, it’s coming from a governor whose own campaign was led[in 2018] by accused child sexual predator Matt Gaetz, and whose disgusting actions DeSantis still refuses to condemn,” said Samantha Ramirez, campaign communications director for Crist.
Gaetz, a Republican congressman from the Florida Panhandle, is under federal investigation for the alleged sex trafficking of a 17-year-old, which he has denied.
DeSantis is being challenged by U.S. Rep. Crist, a former Republican governor of Florida. Crist announced Hernandez-Mats as his running mate on Saturday.
The accusation centers around Wendell Nibbs, who began teaching at Brownsville Middle School in 2002 and eventually became one of about 800 union building stewards elected by the staff. DeSantis didn’t explain why he called Nibbs a “henchman.”
Asked what proof the governor had for the basis of his allegations, Bryan Griffin, the governor’s press secretary, deferred the question to campaign staff.
The campaign sent a flyer from the Republican Party of Florida that repeated the allegation that Hernandez-Mats protected Nibbs and a Miami Herald article about the investigation, which also described his support of her candidacy for union president in 2016, but nothing that showed she protected Nibbs or hindered the investigation.
The case drew a lot of news media attention in South Florida as people questioned how Miami-Dade Schools and the 40,000-member union allowed the allegations to go on for 12 years.
From 2004 to 2015, several students, most of them 14, and a teacher would accuse him of inappropriate behavior, sexual misconduct and sexual assault, all of which he denied, according to Miami Herald reports. The Department of Children and Families was called.
Each time, nothing came of the allegations.
That changed after Miami-Dade Schools Police launched an investigation into Nibbs in 2015, ultimately leading to his arrest two years later for sexual assault on a minor, the Herald said. While awaiting trial, Nibbs was charged with two more counts of sexual battery and resigned from teaching, the Herald reported.
Hernandez-Mats was elected union president in 2016, after the investigation was well under way. There are photos of her with Nibbs prior to him being charged, including one of the two of them under a Brownsville school marque that says “UTD we are keeping students safe.”
NIbbs pleaded guilty in 2019 to two counts of sexual battery on a minor in return for having other charges dropped. He was sentenced to eight years in prison, to be followed by 10 years of sex offender probation. He will be on the state sex offender registry for the rest of his life.
The union relies on the school district to screen, hire and discipline teachers, and fire them if necessary. It doesn’t have the authority to conduct background checks or investigate allegations made against its members.
Hernandez-Mats told the Herald through a spokeswoman in 2019 that employees hired by the district are considered to be safe and qualified to be in a school environment with children, “as far as UTD and other district employees are concerned.”