Carla Coleman had many titles in her 18 years working for Florida Atlantic University, from low-paid research assistant to her most-recent gig as senior vice president, pulling in a six-figure salary. Now, the heroine of the school's fundraising efforts is serving a new role: fall guy.
Coleman allegedly went behind the backs of her supervisors last summer to sneak a going-away present to her former boss, outgoing FAU President Anthony Catanese, according to court documents. Like a veteran money launderer, she hid the cash for a new Corvette carefully through a third party while denying to school officials that she bought Catanese a parting gift with university funds, the documents contend.
But while 51-year-old Coleman is the only one facing criminal charges so far in the scheme, which has shaken and intrigued the 25,000-student university, Catanese and his wife, Sara, may also be posing for booking mugs sometime soon. That's according to lawyers, legal experts, and former prosecutors, all of whom are of the opinion that the Cataneses could be just as guilty for accepting the Corvette as Coleman is for giving it to them. Prosecutors working the case have so far said for the record that there isn't enough evidence against the former president and first lady of the Boca Raton-based university.
According to court documents filed in the criminal case, the whole deal began last summer after Catanese accepted a better-paying job as president of Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne. Coleman asked members of the board that governs the school's fundraising in April 2002 whether FAU should buy Catanese a going-away present. The board members never gave her approval, but Coleman allegedly went ahead with the purchase anyway. To hide the money, Coleman asked for help from interior designers Rita and Stephen Lloyd, who were doing work on the FAU presidential mansion, court documents said. Coleman sent the Lloyds $42,000 in school funds last July, and the Lloyds cut a check for the same amount to Sara Catanese. Stephen Lloyd told investigators that Coleman told him explicitly that the money was actually a going-away gift for the Cataneses in the form of a new Corvette. "I asked her, I said, 'Is that an OK thing to do?'" Lloyd told investigators. "And she said, 'Yes, it is. '"
Meanwhile, Coleman was haggling the price of a new Corvette with a Coconut Creek dealership. She got them down to $41,056.29, and Sara Catanese picked up the couple's new ride July 19 of last year.
University campuses are too small to keep secrets, and after school officials heard rumors of the gift, they went to Coleman. Math professor Fred Hoffman, head of the faculty senate, approached Coleman with the claim. "I asked Carla about it, and she said there was no such gift," Hoffman recalls. Presented with her denial, school officials asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) for help investigating. After a four-month inquiry, authorities busted Coleman on June 30 on a charge of official misconduct, a third-degree felony. She left the jail that day with a copy of the new Harry Potter book under her arm and a receipt for posting bail of $4,500.
Despite Coleman's leading role in the case, police investigators also called for charges to be filed against the Cataneses, it was revealed last week. FDLE special agent Gary Carmichael and FAU police investigator Wilfredo Hernandez recommended that all three should face charges of an organized scheme to defraud and with communications fraud. That's according to a 722-page report the investigators submitted to the State Attorney's Office at the conclusion of their work last month. It's not clear why prosecutors didn't follow their advice, though there is speculation among some legal experts that Coleman may be negotiating a light sentence in return for testifying against her former employer and his wife.
In an intriguing side note, the investigators' recommendations were reported in the Palm Beach Post, but residents of Broward County were largely unaware of any complications in the case. The Sun-Sentinel, the largest daily newspaper in FAU-land, failed to report in its front-page story on Coleman's arrest that the investigators asked for the Cataneses to be charged with felonies. In its July 11 story by Jennifer Peltz and Neil Santaniello, the newspaper wrote at length about the state attorney's report on the case and on official misgivings about the gift of the Corvette but made no note of possible charges against the Cataneses.
Since Coleman's arrest, the controversy has been debated perhaps nowhere more fervently than it has been at the university's Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. The Coleman arrest has provided criminology classes with a real-life case study. Department head Dave Kalinich says the popular opinion seems to be this: Why would Coleman be the only one to be charged with a crime when the Cataneses are the ones who benefited from the shadowy gift? "She's been charged with a felony, but I don't see how they are they going to prove her guilt if they can't show her intent," Kalinich says. "How can they not say that the Cataneses accepted the gift without having the same criminal intent?"
Coleman's motivation is still not clear, students have noted. Catanese was already on his way out when she arranged the secret money exchange. Some have speculated that Coleman cut the check as payback for the 31 percent raise Catanese had given her a few months before his departure, bringing her salary to $185,000. But Kalinich says such speculation isn't as clear-cut as the benefit the Cataneses got by driving away in a free sports car.
Anthony Catanese may have avoided criminal charges by keeping himself isolated from the controversy. His wife may not be so lucky, says Raag Singhal, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer and former state prosecutor. Sara Catanese accepted the check from the Lloyds and picked up the Corvette. So far, there's been no proof presented that Anthony Catanese did more than drive the car. But Sara Catanese could easily face charges of misappropriation of funds or grand theft because she benefited, Singhal said. Without testimony from Sara Catanese or Coleman, though, it could be impossible to indict Anthony Catanese with the same charges Coleman faces.
Coleman and the Cataneses have so far avoided charges for a more serious crime that may arise from the case: money laundering. All three of them may be guilty of breaking federal money-laundering laws, says a former assistant U.S. attorney and member of a corruption unit charged with investigating public officials, who spoke on the condition that he not be named. Charging Coleman first could be part of an effort to get her to testify against the Cataneses, the former prosecutor said, but in the end, the state should go after the couple who left town with the Corvette. "You really want to go to trial against the person who benefited from the misconduct," he said.
Federal authorities may also take an interest in how Anthony Catanese's $42,000 car appeared on the couple's taxes. If they inappropriately listed it as a gift instead of as compensation from FAU or if they listed it as compensation for Sara Catanese from the design company, which may be difficult to prove in court, the IRS could step in, experts say. For now, Mike Edmondson, spokesman for the State Attorney's Office in West Palm Beach, would say only, "At this time, there simply isn't enough evidence against either of them."
Meanwhile, the Lloyds, who helped funnel the money, have promised to testify, and prosecutors agreed they won't charge them with a crime in exchange for their help. The Lloyds also agreed to make amends by doing 30 hours of volunteer work.
Coleman, who resigned her post at FAU, is so far jobless. Reached at her Pompano Beach home midmorning on a recent weekday, she declined to discuss the case. "Oh, no, no," she said in her signature pleasantness, as if she were declining the dessert tray. "You should call my attorney, because I don't talk to the press. Do you have the number? Goodbye."
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