The selection of new members of FAU's Board of Trustees is usually not controversial, passing easily from nomination through confirmation to installation. That may not be the case with Gov. Rick Scott's choice of Elizabeth Fago.
Who's that with Elizabeth Fago?
Lacking any distinctive qualifications for the position (millionaire business owners are a dime a dozen) other than her prowess as a GOP fundraiser, Fago arrives with a freight train of questionable baggage to add to the school's current pyramid of dirty laundry.
Like something out of a Jacqueline Susann novel, Fago's life is a deranged soap opera of money, power and self-adoration, the anti-heroine a bizarre melding of Zsa Zsa Gabor and Cruella deVille. She's kept a relatively low profile in recent years (except for the society pages) which may have additionally emboldened Gov. Scott to put her name forward.
Uh-uh. Lowjinks like Fago's are catnip to journalists, with a stink that lingers. One browses the clips and doesn't know whether to laugh or cry:
A Catholic schoolgirl from Buffalo, NY, the granddaughter of immigrants, Fago made a fortune in the nursing home industry. Her company Home Quality Management grew to include 79 properties in seven states, with annual revenues in the hundreds of millions. She became a major GOP player, organizing a $1.5 million fundraiser for George W. Bush in 2004.
With fame came scrutiny, however, especially after her appointment to leadership positions at the Scripps Research Institute. In 2004 Palm Beach Post reporter Jose Lambiet turned his lens on her here and here. Post editors chimed in too:
[Fago] has left a trail of federal and state tax liens, contested debts and litigation in her rise from real estate agent to self-proclaimed nursing-home mogul...
Ms. Fago borrowed heavily to take over nursing homes in remote communities. She drives $100,000 cars, spirits political friends in a private jet and has contributed at least $400,000 to Republican candidates and to the party since 2001....
Beneath the public persona, however, is a woman who: refused for 13 years to pay a $200 florist bill; went to court at least 35 times, often over petty financial disputes such as her refusal to pay an employee a $5,000 commission; built up $110,000 in federal tax liens, including a 1986 debt of $75,000 that remained until 2000; and, during an interview with a Post reporter, conveniently forgot about her 1985 marriage to a drug dealer.
Ms. Fago remains oblivious. "Why," she asked, "should this stuff exclude me from serving (on the Scripps board)?"
Fago eventually resigned her Scripps position under fire. But there were other misadventures and headlines, including bitter public feuds with former friend and fellow socialite Linda Cooney, former Palm Beach County Commissioner Mary McCarty, and former University of Florida President Marshall Criser Jr.
Our favorite Fago stories are these, both from 2004. (They bring to mind the sage Mel Brooks's description of the distinction between comedy and tragedy: "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.")
- Asking $384,000 in damages from a Palm Beach Gardens neighbor for pain and suffering from bites from the neighbor's dog, Fago got $34K from a jury.
- Sitting on the board of the Health Care District of Palm Beach County, Fago joined with Chairwoman Randee Schatz to deny bonuses to employees who saved the county an estimated $1 million in the purchase of a Belle Glade hospital. "A plaque or a dinner maybe, but giving any money doesn't cut the mustard," Fago said, according to the Post.
FAU faculty may be reluctant to speak out against Fago's appointment, fearful of retaliation from the school's skittish administration, which has responded to its self-created troubles by lashing out at those it thinks weak and kowtowing to those it thinks strong. But the Fago nomination is such a slap in the face the profs may have no choice but to act.
One already has. Associate Professor of English Raphael Dalleo asked not to be quoted, but has written to express his concerns to State Senator Maria Sachs, whose district includes FAU's Boca Campus. (Fago's nomination needs the State Senate's approval.) Sachs has not responded to New Times's request for comment.
There's no evidence Fago knows anything about higher education. And if it's the school's image she's to repair, her record in that regard shows only towering incompetence. Is there a Nobel Prize for chutzpah? That's the nomination Betsy Fago deserves (and can share with Gov. Scott). Not one for a seat on the board at FAU.
Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact Fire.Ant@BrowardPalmBeach.com.