Alejandro Amor says his mother, a lifelong teacher, inspired him to start a college because she recognized that “education is not only a fundamental right but also a social equalizer allowing the impoverished to better their lives.”
Amor founded FastTrain in 1999, building it up to a seven-campus college in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and other parts of Florida.
On the surface, everything seemed to be running well — until the feds shut down Amor's for-profit college and charged him in 2014 with stealing millions of dollars in federal grants and loans for students, including many who didn't even graduate from high school.
On Wednesday, Amor, 56, faces several years in prison at his sentencing hearing in Miami federal court after being found guilty of a fraud conspiracy and a dozen counts of theft of government funds totaling at least $4.5 million.
Amor's defense attorney, Alexander Angueira, is asking U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard to treat him like three former FastTrain co-defendants who pleaded guilty and received short sentences, noting, in court papers, his commitment to higher education and his mother’s influence. But the judge is not likely to be lenient because he was the boss of FastTrain’s racket and they were underlings who pleaded guilty and assisted the U.S. attorney's office in the case against him.
“If anything was crystal clear from the testimony at trial,” said prosecutor Amanda Perwin in court papers, “it was that the policy and practice of enrolling ineligible students at FastTrain by falsifying enrollment and federal student aid documents came directly and unequivocally from Amor.”
She said Amor, a one-time information technology teacher in the Miami-Dade public schools, “profited handsomely from the scheme to steal student aid from the United States Department of Education.”
Trial evidence showed that before being raided by the FBI in 2012, FastTrain admitted roughly 1,300 students who didn't have high school diplomas, using fraud to make the government think the students were eligible for financial aid.
When it came to high school diplomas, 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's TV and radio ads had a catchy jingle — “Get on the Fast Train!” — and promoted the school's computer and medical training programs. One commercial featured a FastTrain graduate getting paid with a giant mock paycheck.
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 received no jail time, but 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 many 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.