Education

The close ties between a for-profit college and its watchdog

CIE employee Marybell Serrano, left, and school owner Karyn Vidal toast drinks together at Havana 1957 on Lincoln Road in this 2013 Facebook photo. The pair, who are accused of falsifying records, have known each other for at least 19 years.
CIE employee Marybell Serrano, left, and school owner Karyn Vidal toast drinks together at Havana 1957 on Lincoln Road in this 2013 Facebook photo. The pair, who are accused of falsifying records, have known each other for at least 19 years. Facebook

Karyn Vidal and Marybell Serrano have shared mojitos at the Havana 1957 restaurant on Lincoln Road and posted the photos on Facebook and Instagram. Public records show they’ve both listed Vidal’s lakefront home in Boca Raton as their address.

While Vidal is in the for-profit college business, her friend Serrano is a regulator of those schools, working in the consumer services division of Florida’s Commission for Independent Education (CIE).

A complaint sent to multiple oversight agencies — including the CIE — claims that Serrano also owns a small share of Vidal’s Institute of Healthcare Professions and did office work there during business hours. The complaint is by Allison Sommers, a Miami chiropractor who was an instructor and recruiter for the school until February.

Sommers offers no proof of Serrano’s ownership stake but says Vidal “frequently announced” that the CIE employee had a 2 percent piece of the business.

“I would describe them as best friends and roommates,” Sommers said in an interview.

Sommers accuses the two women of falsifying records by proffering the names of several relatives as students who have successfully graduated and gone on to get jobs. Some accreditors require that schools show a track record of graduates finding employment. Accreditation is a necessary step in qualifying for federal loans.

Federal funding is the lifeblood of Florida’s for-profit college industry, which has seen a series of college shutdowns amid allegations of fraud.

“These fictitious students never received actual job placements, were documented in false employment locations, evidenced false wages, and false time periods of employment,” Sommers wrote in her March complaint.

A recent Miami Herald investigative series, Higher-Ed Hustle, explored the close ties between the CIE and the for-profit colleges it monitors, and how more than 2,200 student complaints over 14 years have resulted in no instances of a school being sanctioned.

The CIE is part of the Florida Department of Education. The CIE’s next meeting, at 9 a.m. Thursday, will be webcast at http://bit.ly/1Ec5N5V.

The agencies investigating Sommers’ complaint include the CIE, where Serrano is one of seven members of the consumer services team; the Florida Department of Education Office of Inspector General and the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, which granted accreditation to Vidal’s school last year.

Reached by phone, Serrano, 48, declined to comment on Sommers’ complaint. Vidal responded to some questions through a series of text messages.

“Serrano does not have a two percent ownership stake in IHP and she does not live with me,” Vidal, 56, wrote. She described Sommers as a “disgruntled employee” of the school, located in a West Palm Beach strip mall, who was fired and is now making “unwarranted allegations.”

In a brief follow-up phone interview, Vidal said she couldn’t answer additional questions because of the “ongoing investigation.” She would not say, for example, whether she is best friends with Serrano or whether the CIE employee has ever lived with her.

Records show that Vidal and Serrano have known each other for a long time. Serrano’s personnel file lists Vidal as her direct supervisor when Serrano worked at International Fine Arts College, a Miami for-profit school, between 1996 and 2002. While Vidal was her boss, Serrano was promoted to a director’s position overseeing student life and facilities.

Serrano went on to work as a registrar at two other for-profits — Medvance Institute and Le Cordon Bleu culinary school — before joining the CIE in 2007. As a CIE employee, Serrano makes $44,259 and is responsible for inspecting South Florida for-profit colleges.

For-profit colleges are heavily reliant on federal Pell grants and loans — getting as much as 90 percent of their revenue from these sources. But to gain access to that taxpayer money, a school must be approved by one of 37 recognized accrediting agencies.

In her complaint, Sommers alleges that Vidal’s application to the Accrediting Council of Independent Colleges and Schools accreditor used several fake or questionable students who are relatives of Vidal or Serrano, including:

▪ Osvaldo Serrano, described by Sommers as a “brother/relative” of Marybell Serrano. Reached by phone, Osvaldo Serrano would not say whether he had been a student. He said: “To me, it’s nobody’s business but mine and the school’s.”

▪ David Pina, identified by Serrano as her son in Facebook posts. Pina’s Facebook page identifies him as having been a student at the Institute of Healthcare Professions. But it also says he lives in Annapolis, Md., more than 1,000 miles away from the school. The Herald could not find a phone number for Pina to discuss the school.

▪ Kama Abrams, who is married to Vidal’s brother, Jeff Levinson, according to the 2014 obituary of a relative. Jeff Levinson is listed on the Institute of Healthcare Professions website as a school employee.

An internal email included in Sommers’ complaint refers to Kama Abrams as a diagnostic medical sonography student now working in the medical field. But the Palm Beach County School District said she is employed at Royal Palm Beach Community High School under her married name, Kama Levinson.

The Herald called Royal Palm Beach High and Levinson answered the phone. Levinson, a counselor, said she was not aware of Sommers’ complaint. Asked if she had ever attended the institute, she replied “Oh, I’m sorry, somebody just came into the office, I’m going to have to get off the phone right now.” She ended the call.

It is not clear how many total student names — and which names — were submitted to the accreditor. ACICS would not discuss details of the school’s application without permission from Vidal. Vidal told the Herald that the disputed names in Sommers’ complaint were never reported as job placements to ACICS.

Tony Bieda, spokesman for ACICS, said the accreditor relies on schools to provide accurate information.

“There’s a trust relationship there,” Bieda said. If that trust is broken, he said, “it would become much more adversarial.”

One of the alleged fake job placements in Sommers’ complaint was at the Kinesiology Center for Health and Human Performance in New York. The center’s doctor, Josh Kantor, declined to say whether he had hired the student in question, Peter Kazalez.

“I don’t know even why you’re calling me, so I’ve got to talk to the school and find out what’s going on,” he said.

Kazalez is identified in the complaint as Vidal’s brother-in-law, and it says his “proper spelling” is Kazalas. The Herald called a cell phone listed to Peter Kazalas and the man who answered said “you’ve got the wrong number.”

Although the Institute of Healthcare Professions secured the necessary accreditation in December, it has yet to be approved by the U.S. Department of Education for federal funding. The application is pending.

Students can still attend by paying cash or applying for private loans.

Or, as Kimberly Stefanik did, pay with a credit card. A chiropractor from Jupiter, she briefly attended the institute in November 2013 before dropping out and ultimately filing a complaint with the CIE. She was attracted by the school’s 10-month program for chiropractors or foreign doctors to be trained as nurses.

Stefanik says she used her credit card to apply a $5,000 deposit toward the $16,429 total tuition bill, with a promise to cover the balance with monthly payments. But after five days, Stefanik changed her mind and told the school she wanted to withdraw.

“I requested a refund of my deposit in accordance with the contract signed by both me and Karyn Vidal,” Stefanik told the Herald in an e-mail. “She sent me a refund which was much less than I was entitled to under the Institute’s own refund policy.”

Stefanik expected to get about $4,700 back. She said she was offered a refund of $775. After Stefanik repeatedly complained to the state, Vidal increased the refund offer to $1,406.

“This whole thing was a complete scam, in my opinion,” Stefanik said.

The CIE dismissed Stefanik’s first complaint in September, writing in a letter “it appears the institution has addressed the issue and this complaint is considered closed.” Stefanik, who supplied extensive documentation with her complaint, demanded that the CIE reopen the case, which it did. In April, the second investigation ended again in the school’s favor, with CIE Executive Director Sam Ferguson writing that Stefanik’s enrollment agreement included a clause calling for such disputes to be settled through arbitration.

“Any remaining dispute concerning the amount of the refund should be taken up through that avenue,” Ferguson wrote.

Stefanik said the experience left her feeling “disgusted.”

Vidal pointed to the outcome as validation.

“Those fallacious allegations have been investigated on multiple occasions and found to be without merit,” Vidal wrote in a text message. “THE END.”

Before starting the Institute of Healthcare Professions, Vidal spent eight years as the campus director at the Delray Beach location of the Institute of Allied Medical Professions. The school was sued in 2010 by 14 students who attended night classes to be ultrasound techs.

Those students said they signed up because the school told them the ultrasound accredited program was accredited, or would be accredited by the time they graduated.

But the program was actually unaccredited, and Vidal’s campus had given up on trying to get accredited, according to court testimony from the company president, Thomas Haggerty. When students graduated — after spending as much as $30,000 each — they were ineligible to sit for the national exam to be a registered ultrasound tech, the suit said.

The students complained that employers wouldn’t hire them without the full credential. One student, Albert Ott, left his family behind and moved to Michigan to find work — a sacrifice he described as “very tough” in 2010 sworn testimony.

The school eventually reached a financial settlement with the 14 students, the terms of which are confidential.

The Institute of Allied Medical Professions operated other campuses in New York and Georgia. The New York campuses were dogged by similar allegations. Students complained of being signed up for the MRI program with promises that it would lead to jobs only to find that their education didn’t qualify them to take the nationally recognized MRI exam.

One New York student wrote to the state he felt “disgraced & full of shame.”

Prodded by New York’s Education Department, the school ultimately gave refunds to about 50 students, according to court records.

“We do not view these complaints as frivolous,” wrote the department’s then-assistant commissioner, Joseph Frey, in a July 5, 2006 letter. “Many students have alleged similar violations.”

In the Palm Beach County lawsuit, former school recruiter Sondra Mansour testified that Vidal instructed her to tell prospective students that the ultrasound accreditation was coming when in fact the school had stopped trying to get that program accredited.

“I feel bad for the students,” Mansour testified.

Vidal told the Herald “it’s not true” and “the program did get accredited.”

In 2010, the school’s Florida and Georgia locations were purchased by another for-profit company, the Cambridge Institute of Allied Health & Technology. Vidal stayed on for a few months under the new ownership, then resigned.

By 2012, Cambridge officials told the CIE they discovered “massive fraud” in how the schools used to be run.

In public comments at a CIE board meeting, Cambridge blamed the former owner and “the management of Karyn Vidal.”

Vidal sued Cambridge for slander. Cambridge responded with its own lawsuit, accusing Vidal and the former owner of knowingly concealing the company’s problems from Cambridge to make sure the sale went through. Court records show Vidal received a 10 percent share of the sale proceeds — $430,446. Because both suits are still pending, Vidal said she would not comment on Cambridge’s allegations, other than to say the company’s suit was a “defense mechanism” after she sued first.

Cambridge’s complaints to the CIE didn’t have much impact. Two months later, according to court records, the agency approved the first degree program for Vidal’s new school.

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