Dennis Pastrana, the longtime head of Goodwill Industries of South Florida, admitted Monday to criminal charges of secretly reimbursing employees for campaign donations to local politicians.
In a deal worked out in advance with prosecutors, Pastrana pleaded guilty in Miami-Dade County court to one misdemeanor count of making a campaign contribution in the name of another.
The surprising arrest comes two months after Pastrana — credited with turning South Florida’s Goodwill into a thriving multimillion-dollar operation aimed at helping those with special needs — retired after nearly five decades with the nonprofit.
His attorney, Ben Kuehne, said Pastrana was “deeply apologetic.”
“It was his own personal error intended to assist good public officials who serve the community,” Kuehne said.
Pastrana’s abrupt retirement in March came while he was quietly under investigation by Miami-Dade prosecutors and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Goodwill immediately named his replacement: David Landsberg, former publisher of The Miami Herald.
As part of the plea deal, Pastrana will be put on house arrest with a GPS ankle monitor for 90 days. He also must contribute $10,000 to a charitable organization, plus another $10,000 to the State Attorney’s Office.
Pastrana, 74, took the plea Monday in the courtroom of Miami-Dade Judge Fred Seraphin.
According to Miami-Dade prosecutors, Pastrana admitted that he asked staffers to contribute to local politicians who had helped Goodwill when the nonprofit was struggling and near collapse.
He used his own money, not Goodwill’s, to reimburse the employees for $3,000 in donations and expressed remorse over the lapse in judgment, according to authorities. State Attorney’s and FDLE investigators stumbled upon the crime during the course of another public corruption probe.
Investigators pored through financial records and interviewed Goodwill employees, and eventually Pastrana himself.
Founded in 1959, Goodwill Industries of South Florida provides rehabilitation, on-the-job training, work experience, job placement and other services for people with special needs and disabilities.
But by the late 1970s, its donation centers were filthy and its administration was in disarray. It was in the worst shape of any of the branches across the United States, losing about $300,000 each year. The financial woes were so bad that the nonprofit laid off 53 of its severely disabled workers just before Christmas 1978.
Pastrana, who had helmed the Goodwill and Milwaukee and worked for the national headquarters in Washington, was tasked with cleaning up the South Florida operation in 1979.
He cleaned house by replacing key staff, generating new service contracts, developing training programs and renovating rundown thrift shops. He turned the agency’s books from red to black and found job placements for hundreds of people a year.
Today, South Florida’s Goodwill earns nearly $100 million in revenue each year, while employing 2,500 people with special needs and providing programs and services for another 5,000.
Pastrana has helped Goodwill operate 11 businesses, including a new industrial laundry near Liberty City that employs 200 people.
Another major part of its operation: making military apparel and U.S. flags for the government. Goodwill and other organizations that employ people with disabilities came under scrutiny last year for paying some workers less than minimum wage, a gap that’s allowed as part of a federal program.