By Jay Meisel
FORT PIERCE - Several students told authorities they paid money to a Fort Pierce man as tuition for an education to qualify them as substance abuse counselors.
The only problem, authorities said last week, is the program at a nonprofit organization in Fort Pierce couldn't accomplish that.
Because of that, the St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office arrested the Rev. Albert Pigozzi, head of Plant A Seed Ministries and Frank Michael Lafergola, a convicted sex offender, who taught the course. The Rev. Pigozzi started Plant A Seed in 2003 to help people with substance abuse problems.
Mr. Lafergola, 56, 132 North 12th St., Fort Pierce and the Rev. Pigozzi, 55, 1519 S.E. Cownie St., Port St. Lucie, were arrested Aug. 30 and charged with organized fraud and four counts of third-degree grand theft.
When asked for comment, the Rev. Pigozzi referred to his attorney, Steven Ziskinder, who could not be reached.
Mr. Lafergola was in jail on a charge of violation of probation at the time of his latest arrest, said Suzanne Woodward, an investigator with the sheriff's office.
Ms. Woodward said Mr. Lafergola was on probation after having been convicted in 2008 on a charge of lewd solicitation of a minor. Port St. Lucie police arrested Mr. Lafergola after he traveled to meet a boy and have sex with him, she said.
However, Mr. Lafergola had no legal obligation to tell the students in the substance abuse program that he is a convicted sex offender, she said.
She said the investigation showed he solicited students at Indian River State College for the substance abuse program and that they each paid him $750, with the promise they could complete it and become certified substance abuse counselors. Victims included three students from Port St. Lucie and one from Vero Beach.
But neither Mr. Lafergola nor the Rev. Pigozzi, who authorities say was also involved in the education program, were qualified to provide continuing education units, a state requirement for becoming a certified counselor, Ms. Woodward said.
Although it was claimed a qualified doctor in south Florida was involved, "he didn't even know they were teaching the classes," Detective Woodward said.
An arrest affidavit said Mr. Lafergola told authorities of the $750 he collected from students 90 percent of it went to the Rev. Pigozzi.
Some of the students told authorities they were concerned whether the program would provide them with enough hours, but the Rev. Pigozzi told them he would take care of that, an arrest affidavit said.
They also told authorities the Rev. Pigozzi said when they finished the program, they could become counselors at Plant A Seed.