Alejandro Amor, the convicted founder of a now-closed South Florida college called FastTrain, was sent to prison for eight years on Monday.
Amor, who credited his mother, a teacher, with inspiring him to start the for-profit college, ended up improperly securing millions in financial aid from the U.S. government — including money loaned or awarded to students who never finished high school and should not have been enrolled in college.
Amor, a one-time Miami resident, founded FastTrain in 1999 and built it up to a seven-campus college in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and other parts of Florida. But the feds shut down Amor’s school and charged him in 2014 with stealing millions of dollars in federal grants and loans for students, including many who didn’t graduate from high school.
Amor, 56, was convicted in November. Three former FastTrain employees pleaded guilty before his trial and cooperated against him.
Amor’s defense attorney, Alexander Angueira, asked U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard to give him lesser punishment.
“There’s no doubt how the court views the seriousness of this crime — it’s a terrible thing what happened to these students,” Angueira said. But he also said that, “rightly or wrongly, his goal was to help these students pick themselves up and get them jobs.”
Prosecutor Amanda Perwin sharply disagreed, saying Amor called the shots on the college’s policy of “enrolling ineligible students.” She said Amor, once an information technology teacher in the Miami-Dade public schools, was the “mastermind” of the scheme to bilk the U.S. Department of Education and “participated extensively in covering it up. . . . There were very real victims — students were lied to.”
At trial, Perwin put on evidence showing that FastTrain admitted roughly 1,300 students who didn’t have high school diplomas, using falsified documents to make the government think the students were eligible for financial aid. FastTrain took advantage of lax federal rules that are vulnerable to abuse. A college that wants to enroll ineligible students can accept diplomas from a “diploma mill” — one that issues bogus credentials for a fee.
For those ineligible students, FastTrain received $6,560,000 in Pell grants and student loans. For-profit colleges are known for aggressive recruiting, but FastTrain turned it up a notch. Ex-employees told investigators that Amor boosted enrollments by hiring former strippers as recruiters, some of whom wore “short skirts and stiletto heels” to work.
Amor told one employee to “hire some hot mommas” and “hire the sluttiest girls he could find.”
FastTrain operated campuses in Miami, Kendall, Fort Lauderdale, Pembroke Pines, Tampa, Jacksonville and Clearwater. Between 2007 and 2012 — combining all campuses and both eligible and ineligible students — FastTrain received $35,026,608 in taxpayer-funded Pell grants and federal loans.
Amor’s conviction in November came at a time when Florida’s for-profit college industry was reeling from a series of scandals: Coral Gables-based Dade Medical College abruptly closed its six campuses, after the U.S. Department of Education started scrutinizing the college’s finances. The closure left 2,000 students stranded.
Then, Dade Medical owner Ernesto Perez pleaded guilty to illegally bundling more than $159,000 in campaign contributions to politicians. Perez had to serve two months of house arrest, along with three years of probation.
Last year, a Miami Herald investigation, Higher-Ed Hustle, highlighted how students at some of Florida’s for-profit colleges complained that they were pressured to enroll by recruiters who made false promises, or misled them about what kind of accreditation the college had.
For-profits enroll nearly one in five Florida students, and the schools have used political connections to boost their credibility and influence. FastTrain was no different.
Amor’s college had close ties in particular with U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Miramar Democrat who is a strong supporter of for-profit schools. Hastings has received at least $81,250 in contributions from the “career college” industry, including $6,500 from FastTrain.
The congressman delivered the commencement speech at a FastTrain graduation ceremony in 2011. FastTrain established a Leadership Scholarship in Hastings’ name.
Miami Herald staff writer Michael Vasquez contributed to this story.