Benjamin worked at ATI from 2005 to 2011. While there, he contributed tens of thousands of dollars to a bipartisan array of congressional candidates, according to federal election records.
Florida recipients of Benjamin’s largess include: Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston; Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar; ex-Reps. E. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale and Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton; and Charlie Crist, the ex-Republican and ex-governor and presumed frontrunner for the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
The Florida whistleblower lawsuit alleged that within a month of Ramirez-Damon’s hiring in October 2009, it became apparent to her that ATI was engaged in active Pell Grant fraud. She said she notified her superiors, but that company management chose “to look the other way.”
Ramirez-Damon claimed she was abruptly demoted in April 2011 and transferred off the Fort Lauderdale campus at 2890 NW 62nd St. to a job as an instructor in Doral. The reason: “to keep her silent” and deny her access to school records, the lawsuit said.
She is no longer employed by ATI.
Pell Grants provide government aid to students from low-income families. At ATI, students could take courses to train them for jobs in automotive, healthcare, business, information technology and other fields.
According to the suit, ATI falsified documents to enroll “as many students as possible” in programs with tuitions ranging from $13,741 to $46,744 per program. One former ATI employee is quoted as saying “the ATI culture…was to recruit anyone with a pulse.”
The numbers could add up quickly.
“With a student mass of over 750 [in Fort Lauderdale] alone, and 18,000 countrywide, federal subsidy of tuition is a very lucrative scam for ATI,” the suit said.
To find students, the suit said, ATI admission representatives targeted “the ‘down and out’ at homeless shelters, strip clubs and poor neighborhoods.” The “bait” to entice them to sign up was the promise of financial aid and low-interest loans. ATI distributed flyers promising lucrative salaries and guarantees of job placement.
ATI would also “re-circulate” poorly achieving students who faced dismissal, letting them know that they could transfer into another career training program. “This way the old grades no longer count and the student is again eligible to receive financial aid,” the Florida suit said.
Some students who failed would fail again because they did not have the academic ability or background to take the courses they were in, according to the lawsuit.
“As a result, the students incurred more debt without graduating. ATI, on the other hand, has made more money,” the suit said.
The Justice Department’s news release noted that $2 million of ATI’s settlement payout would be used to refund student loans involving separate litigation filed in Texas “and other related arbitrations.” Ramirez-Damon, the Florida whistleblower, is entitled to a cut of the rest.
The Justice Department release did not say how much taxpayers lost on government loans to ATI students.
Miami Herald staff writer Casey Frank contributed to this report.