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.
Amor, 56, faces up to 10 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 $4.6 million. His sentencing hearing began Wednesday but was continued until April 18, after the defendant’s attorney showed mistakes in the prosecution’s calculation of the loss amount.
Amor’s defense attorney, Alexander Angueira, asked U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard to treat him like three former FastTrain co-defendants who pleaded guilty and received much shorter sentences. He noted in court papers his client’s commitment to higher education and his mother’s influence. But the judge is not likely to be lenient because Amor was the boss at FastTrain, and the former employees 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.”
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, according to the U.S. attorney’s office. But during Wednesday’s sentencing, the prosecutor produced a list compiled by investigators that showed half as many ineligible students enrolled at FastTrain. Amor’s defense attorney, Angueira, pointed out hundreds of mistakes on the prosecution’s list, estimating that the actual number of ineligible students was about 380.
For those ineligible students, FastTrain received $6,560,000 in Pell grants and student loans. But while the prosecutor argued that the total loss to the U.S. Department of Education was about $4.6 million, Amor’s attorney countered that it was closer to $1.5 million.
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.
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 was sentenced to 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.