Gabriel Hernandez was 15 years old. He’d hadn’t yet made it past the 10th grade. But none of that stopped him from enrolling at a Miami-based for-profit college.
Hernandez testified in federal court Friday that when he told the FastTrain College recruiter he lacked a high school diploma, “he told me that he could take care of it.”
Hernandez’s testimony marked the first day of a criminal trial against FastTrain’s former president, Alejandro Amor. A recent Miami Herald investigation, Higher-Ed Hustle, showed that the for-profit college industry in general has been plagued by allegations of fraud and deceptive recruiting practices. But criminal prosecutions of school operators are rare. And school operators who face charges typically agree to a plea deal rather than go to trial.
Amor’s case will provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the operations of a school that allegedly used former strippers as admissions recruiters, committed millions of dollars in taxpayer fraud, and left students saddled with massive loan debts and useless college credits.
Hernandez’s enrollment paperwork, presented to jurors on Friday, listed the 15-year-old as a graduate of a high school called American Worldwide Academy. But Hernandez testified that he had filled out only the name and address section in the top half of the form, and someone else wrote in the fictitious high school graduation information.
What about Hernandez’s signature at the bottom? A forgery, the former student said.
Hernandez, now 19, testified that he dropped out of FastTrain’s Information Technology program after only two weeks — he was turned off by the school’s atmosphere. Hernandez testified he was surprised to find out about 18 months ago that he owes $5,000 in student loans from his short time there.
“I went to buy a car, and my credit was really bad,” Hernandez said.
Amor potentially faces years of prison time. The ex-college president sat quietly in court Friday, seated next to his defense attorney, Alexander Angueira. Angueira told jurors that Amor was an ethical operator who wrote memos instructing his more than 200 employees to follow the federal rules and guidelines for financial aid. But keeping tabs on everyone wasn’t easy, Angueira said, as some admissions reps had worked previously at other schools accused of fraud, and brought those bad habits to FastTrain.
“In many ways, managing these employees was like herding cats,” Angueira said.
Amor faces 12 counts of theft of government money, and one count of conspiracy. Prosecutors say Amor defrauded the federal Pell grant and student loan programs of millions of dollars by enrolling ineligible students who lacked a high school diploma — with Amor sometimes falsifying student records himself.
Amor owns a waterfront Coral Gables home, a private jet, and a 54-foot yacht named “Big One.” Prosecutors made a point to mention Amor’s luxury lifestyle to the jury.
[Amor] did not conspire or agree with anyone to steal money or embezzle money from the federal government.
defense attorney Alexander Angueira
Before being raided by the FBI in 2012, FastTrain operated seven Florida campuses, including ones in Kendall, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Pembroke Pines. Amor is a former board member of the Florida Association of Postsecondary Schools and Colleges, a for-profit college lobbying group and trade association.
As opening statements began Friday morning, Assistant United States Attorney Vanessa Snyder told jurors: “This is a case about stealing.”
Snyder said FastTrain’s tuition revenues came almost entirely from the federal government’s financial aid programs. In order to boost FastTrain’s profits, Snyder said, Amor decided to enroll students whether they had a high school diploma or not. The college leader, prosecutors said, was constantly worried about getting caught and going to jail.
“He even joked about not looking good in stripes,” Snyder said.
Federal guidelines generally require students to have a high school diploma or GED to get financial aid for college, although there are some exceptions to that rule. For example, colleges don’t have to ask for proof of a diploma — it’s legal to just take a student’s word that they graduated high school.
Critics say the current system is ripe for abuse.
This is a case about stealing.
Assistant United States Attorney Vanessa Snyder
In court Friday, Snyder said FastTrain enrolled homeless students, students with criminal records, and “some couldn’t even read.” The school used “provocatively dressed young women” as recruiters, Snyder said, and canvassed the poorest neighborhoods, promising its training programs would lead to a better life.
“They sold these recruits a phony dream,” Snyder said.
Amor’s attorney has fought to keep prosecutors from mentioning the allegation that FastTrain hired former strippers to be recruiters. But U.S. Judge Joan Lenard ruled earlier this month that she may allow strippers to be discussed during the trial, depending on the evidence presented in the case.
Prosecutors say that any FastTrain employees who objected to the school’s fraudulent practices were fired by Amor. The high school diploma fraud was so rampant that one FastTrain employee was selling fake diplomas out of the trunk of his car, Snyder said in court Friday.
The FastTrain trial also includes a second defendant: Anthony Mincey, a former assistant director of admissions at FastTrain’s Jacksonville campus. Mincey’s attorney argued his client is a low-level employee who made $42,000 a year. Five other former FastTrain employees have entered guilty pleas, agreeing to “cooperate fully” with prosecutors. Those five will be testifying in the coming weeks.
The trial is expected to be lengthy — about eight weeks. Prosecutors intend to call more than 30 witnesses.
When a former financial aid director, Gelkys Delgado, testified Friday, jurors heard a tape recorded conversation between her and Amor — Delgado had agreed to wear a wire for investigators. In the recording, Delgado tells Amor that some students are worried about the fact that they were coached to lie about their high school diploma at enrollment. The students don’t want to get stuck with loans, Delgado tells Amor.
In the recording, Amor says “this is like a shock” and “I had no idea that this was still going on.” Amor’s attorney told jurors those statements demonstrate his innocence.
“This is a man who doesn’t know he’s being bugged,” Angueira said.
But Amor also says on the recording that he’s willing to turn in students who lied about their high school status to the U.S. Department of Education. That could lead to students being prosecuted for criminal fraud.
“I’ll submit it to cover my ass,” Amor says.