DeSantis promotes vicious smear against political rival
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R), his campaign, and the Florida Republican Party have launched a coordinated attack on Karla Hernández, the Democratic nominee for Lieutenant Governor of Florida. They claim Hernández, as president of the United Teachers of Dade (UTD) union, "protected a sexual predator for years and accompanied him through numerous investigations into his sexual assaults of multiple students." This claim, Popular Information has learned, is false.
The allegation against Hernández appears to have originated on Twitter from a notorious right-wing disinformation account, Libs of Tik Tok. News of Hernández's selection as the Democratic nominee for Lieutenant Governor, running on a ticket with Charlie Crist, was first reported on August 26 at 2:01 PM Eastern. At 8:36 PM, Libs of Tik Tok posted that Hernández was involved in a coverup "for a teacher who pled guilty to sexual assault of a student." The tweet claimed, "there were allegations against him for 12 YEARS & the union she was in charge of protected him."
In a follow-up tweet, Libs of Tik Tok stressed that Hernández "protected a pedophile for 12 YEARS while he was working in a middle school."
Libs of Tik Tok provided no substantiation for these claims. (A Miami Herald article the account linked to does not support the allegations.) And it's unclear where Libs of Tik Tok was getting its information. But the next day, the Florida Republican Party created a webpage attacking Hernández that contained similar allegations.
As president of UTD, Karla Hernandez Mats protected a sexual predator for years and accompanied him through numerous investigations into his sexual assaults of multiple students at a Miami-Dade middle school. The rapist, Wendell Nibbs, was a high-ranking UTD member and strong supporter of Hernandez Mats. He pled guilty to child sexual assault and was sentenced to 8 years in prison in January 2020.
Wendell Nibbs, a former middle school teacher, was arrested in November 2017 and pled guilty to child sexual assault in January 2020. The allegations against Nibbs date back to 2004, and it is appalling that he was able to remain a teacher for so many years.
But it is false that Hernández "protected" Nibbs or "accompanied him through numerous investigations." The known allegations against Nibbs span from May 2004 to May 2016. Hernández did not become president of UTD, which represents more than 28,000 educators, until May 2016.
Investigations into teacher conduct can be civil or criminal. According to reports, the criminal investigation into Nibbs' conduct that resulted in his arrest began in mid-2015. When an investigation into a teacher is criminal, UTD does not play any role, a union spokesperson told Popular Information. UTD confirmed that, after Hernández became president in 2016, UTD had no involvement with the investigation into Nibbs.
Civil investigations are conducted by Miami-Dade Public Schools (MDPS) district. UTD cannot obstruct the investigation. UTD cannot determine whether a teacher should be hired or fired; that is a decision made by the school district. In civil investigations, at a teacher's request, a UTD staff member will accompany a teacher during a proceeding to ensure procedures are followed. A union spokesperson told Popular Information that Hernández never accompanied Nibbs to any proceeding or had any other role whatsoever in MDPS' civil investigations of Nibbs.
Prior to the criminal investigation that began in 2015, all the allegations of sexual misconduct were determined by police or school administrators to be "unsubstantiated." (Nibbs was reprimanded once for failing to report that a girl was being bullied in class.) The dismissal of numerous complaints against Nibbs by investigators was a terrible mistake that resulted in more girls being assaulted. But none of those investigations involved Hernández.
The Florida Republican Party also falsely claimed that Nibbs was a "high ranking member" of UTD. Nibbs was a building steward. In the MDPS district, there are more than 800 stewards. The building stewards are selected by union members at individual schools. Union leaders like Hernández are not involved in selecting stewards.
The fact that the allegations against Hernández are false has not prevented them from being promoted extensively by the DeSantis campaign. Christina Pushaw, who recently left DeSantis' official office to become Director of Rapid Response for his campaign, tweeted that Hernández "protected" Nibbs "through years of investigations and student rape allegations." (In her role in the Governor's office, Pushaw asserted that anyone who opposed DeSantis' "Don't Say Gay" legislation, which prohibited many teachers from acknowledging the existence of LGBTQ people, was "probably a groomer.")
A week ago, Pushaw established a new Twitter account, DeSantis War Room. That account has been used repeatedly to smear Hernández with allegations that she protected a sexual predator.
According to a source familiar with DeSantis’ campaign strategy, the DeSantis campaign has also been aggressively pitching the false allegations about Hernández to Florida reporters.
But the effort to push the smear against Hernández into the mainstream media was apparently unsuccessful. So during a media event Tuesday, DeSantis pushed disinformation about Hernández himself. "You do not put union politics ahead of middle school students who are in danger of being sexually abused," DeSantis said, "That’s disqualifying to be in any political office, much less Lieutenant Governor of Florida." DeSantis also falsely characterized Nibbs as UTD's "top union henchman." DeSantis "left without giving reporters a chance for a followup about his accusations."
Samantha Ramirez, campaign communications director for the Crist/Hernández campaign, called DeSantis' comments "a lie." The Florida Republican Party and the DeSantis campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Another false accusation against Hernández
The Florida GOP also claimed Hernández and the UTD "lobbied and worked with the Biden administration to cover up and stop collecting sexual assault data from schools." The accusation refers to the Biden administration’s November 2021 proposal to change the questions in a survey known as the Civil Rights Data Collection. The Fox News article cited by the Florida GOP does not include any mention of Hernández or the UTD. It also does not provide any evidence that any teachers union was involved in crafting the proposal. The Fox News article is based on an article in the Free Beacon, another right-wing publication, which similarly provides no evidence for the Florida GOP's claim. Free Beacon simply quotes a research fellow with the right-wing American Enterprise Institute who states, without evidence, that teachers' unions, in general, want to protect "pedophiles."
The Department of Education proposed to retire data collection established under the Trump administration about “rape or attempted rape, or sexual assault” to "reduce burden and duplication of data." A spokesperson from the Department of Education told Fox News that, even if the proposed rule were adopted, the Office for Civil Rights would "continue to collect data on the number of documented incidents of offenses committed by school staff, including rape or attempted rape, and sexual assault.”
In December 2021, the Department of Education announced it was withdrawing the original proposal and issuing a new one that included the previously omitted questions.