Florida for-profit college watchdog defends agency staffer accused of conflict

Florida Commission for Independent Education board meeting

Florida Commission for Independent Education Executive Director, Sam Ferguson, says conflict of interest accusations against one of his employees are unfair and unfounded. Ferguson spoke out in defense of CIE employee Marybell Serrano during a CIE
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Florida Commission for Independent Education Executive Director, Sam Ferguson, says conflict of interest accusations against one of his employees are unfair and unfounded. Ferguson spoke out in defense of CIE employee Marybell Serrano during a CIE

The top administrator for the Florida commission that regulates for-profit colleges defended his agency Thursday, including a staffer accused of a conflict of interest because of her close ties with the operator of a South Florida school.

Lashing out at a series of stories in the Miami Herald, Sam Ferguson unveiled a just-completed inspector general report, which looked at a complaint that one of his staffers had a conflict — including, allegedly, partial ownership in a school that fell under her regulatory purview.

The IG’s report found the accusations were “not substantiated.”

“I don’t defend the schools,” said Ferguson, executive director of the Commission for Independent Education (CIE). “I do, though, take great umbrage at anything that affects my staff, especially in what I feel is an unfair way.”

However, one member of the CIE complained that the close-out memo, by the inspector general for the Florida Department of Education, ignored the more-serious allegations against the staffer, which alleged fraud and falsification of documents.

Those matters were left for the CIE to investigate internally.

A recent Miami Herald investigation, Higher-Ed Hustle, highlighted the connections between the CIE and the schools it oversees. Under state law, four of the commission’s seven members are school executives. Though the CIE has received more than 2,200 student complaints in the past 14 years, it could not identify a single instance of a school being disciplined as a result. Ferguson compared those complaints to “parking tickets” and said they represent a tiny fraction of the industry’s total student enrollment.

The Miami Herald spent a year investigating Florida's for-profit colleges - conducting scores of interviews and reviewing tens of thousands of pages of documents. Here's what it found.

Earlier this week, the Herald reported that a CIE employee, Marybell Serrano, was accused of being roommates with a for-profit college owner, and holding a 2 percent ownership stake in the school. The accusation came from Allison Sommers, a former employee at the school who said that school owner Karyn Vidal talked about Serrano’s ownership stake “frequently.”

Ferguson said he had read the Herald article about Serrano a couple of times, and “I can’t tell you what she is guilty of.”

The Florida Department of Education Inspector General close-out memo on the allegations, provide by the CIE to the Herald, says that the investigation found no evidence that Serrano owned a piece of the Institute of Healthcare Professions in West Palm Beach. The investigation did find that Serrano had lived with Vidal between November, 2013 and January of this year, and that the pair have been friends for over two decades.

Serrano did not report her living arrangement to her bosses at the CIE, investigators found.

Serrano also acknowledged that she helped Vidal paint the school facility and decorate it “for the holidays,” the report states.

Serrano told investigators that the work she performed at the school was not done during daytime hours, when she works for the CIE.

Investigators found that Serrano, whose job is to inspect South Florida schools, had never inspected her friend’s school, which “would have constituted an actual or perceived conflict of interest.”

To prove that Serrano was not a part-owner of her school, Vidal gave investigators company stock certificates from October 2013 showing a 60/40 ownership split between Vidal and her ex-husband.

In his remarks Thursday, Ferguson said there’s nothing wrong with being friends with a school operator, and that Serrano’s friendship with Vidal is “wonderful.”

One key accusation against Serrano and Vidal remains unsettled: that the pair had their relatives pose as fake “students” in order to obtain accreditation for the school, which is a key step in getting federal financial aid dollars. Several students who are related to Vidal or Serrano were allegedly listed by the schools as students who had graduated and successfully gotten jobs.

The allegation of falsifying documents were reported to the IG, but investigators decided to let the CIE investigate that matter separately.

In an interview, Ferguson said the CIE would not have a conflict of interest in investigating its own employee.

“Does not the police do that too, when they have internal affairs?” he asked.

The authenticity of the student files is also being investigated by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, which is the accreditor for the Institute of Healthcare Professions.

Though Ferguson said his employee was exonerated, CIE board members declined to approved two new academic programs for Vidal’s Institute of Healthcare Professions. The rejection came after prodding by the CIE’s one board member representing religious schools, Gene Youngblood of Conservative Theological University in Jacksonville.

Youngblood said the IG’s investigation didn’t address the “bulk” of accusations against the school.

“Nothing in the IG’s report says anything about the falsification of documents, the fraud, the conspiracy to commit fraud, the falsifying of student records, the falsifying of employment records, I see nothing in the report that has exonerated any of those issues,” Youngblood said.

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