During that time, Joseph said the school had her sign a blank form “to get enrolled.” Joseph said she was told federal Pell grants — a form of student aid that doesn’t need to be repaid — would likely cover her tuition, and if it became necessary for her to take out loans they would let her know. Joseph said no one ever followed up with her.
After one of Joseph’s instructors warned her the school was rife with fraudulent practices, she abruptly withdrew. It wasn’t until a few months ago — almost seven years later — that Joseph said she found out she had a $15,000 loan in collections, dating back to her time at ATI. Joseph was trying to find out why she had bad credit. An agent at a collections agency told her about the ATI loans.
“They gave me the impression like we weren’t taking out any loans,” Joseph said. “I’m like, how dare they even do this?”
The good life
The personal website of former ATI CEO Arthur Benjamin (arthurebenjamin.com) contains a biography, a blog, and lofty quotes from the likes of Voltaire and Mahatma Gandhi. But it’s the photo gallery section that has attracted attention lately.
As news of the federal settlement (and ATI’s alleged wrongdoings) spread in recent weeks, the Huffington Post website posted many of Benjamin’s high-society pictures, showing him mingling with actors, former U.S. presidents and the like. It was a lavish lifestyle fueled by taxpayer fraud and the destruction of students’ lives, the Huffington Post wrote.
In many of his black-tie gala photos, Benjamin (a self-described animal rights advocate) is seen holding a dog. When Benjamin visited the Miami Herald newsroom last week to tell his side of the story, he brought a small canine along with him — a Shih Tzu/Lhasa mix named Bandit.
Benjamin complained he’d become the scapegoat for the downfall of a company that he stopped running three years ago. The former CEO said he’d suffered too, as he invested most of what he earned at ATI into a small ownership stake in the company.
When ATI disappeared, that investment vanished, Benjamin said.
“I lost all of that,” Benjamin said. “It changed my life. It’s a big loss.”
Benjamin declined to say the exact amount.
The former CEO said he never saw any systemic fraud while he ran the company between 2005 and 2010. All ATI campuses had a toll-free phone number that students could call with complaints, Benjamin said, and only a few dozen calls came in.
Benjamin ran ATI for most of the time that the whistleblower in the Florida lawsuit, Dulce Ramirez-Damon, worked for the company. In her lawsuit, Ramirez-Damon said she witnessed widespread cheating of the taxpayer-funded financial aid system.
Ramirez-Damon, who was assistant director of education at the Fort Lauderdale campus, said she brought her concerns to superiors, and was demoted as a result.
“She didn’t come to me and tell me about those things,” Benjamin insisted. “I didn’t have a chance to look into any of them.”
U.S. Department of Education records show about 29 percent of students at ATI’s Oakland Park campus defaulted on their loans within three years — more than double the national average. Benjamin said that ATI students tend to be poorer, which can drive up default rates.