After paying $6,000 and studying for a whole year, Alexandra Cardenas was just three weeks away from completing her English course at Inlingua Language School in Doral.
But when the 28-year-old Venezuelan arrived for class Monday, the corner unit at the Doral shopping plaza was dark. Inlingua had abruptly closed, leaving teachers without their final paychecks and Cardenas and hundreds of her fellow students, who are also in the U.S. on student visas, in a legal lurch; their tuition never refunded. Her younger brother had paid $2,480 for a four-month English class just days before.
“We have no idea what’s going to happen now,” she said.
The Doral location and nine other Inlingua schools around the state — Aventura, Boca Raton, Coral Gables, Fort Lauderdale, Key Biscayne, Brickell, Weston, Orlando, and Tampa — are reported to have abruptly shuttered. Court documents say Inlingua schools employ about 100 teachers and serve over 700 foreign students residing in the U.S. on student visas — many with dependents.
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The language schools that were certified by the U.S. government to enroll foreign students had ties to the Ortegas, a prominent Ecuadorian family that lives in Miami and once ran Ecuador’s fourth-largest bank.
According to U.S. bankruptcy-court documents, the Ortega family has a legacy of financial troubles. In February 2003, Leonidas Ortega Trujillo created LTG Foundation in Panama. Around that same time, the Ortega family’s bank, Banco Continental, was accused of fraudulent transactions the ultimately led to the bank’s failure. Litigation cost Trujillo a judgment of almost $600 million.
The LTG Foundation appears in records that were leaked as part of the Panama Papers scandal — and currently “directly or indirectly” holds an interest in the Inlingua schools, according to documents.
A lawsuit filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in June 2016 alleges Trujillo did not disclose income from the Inlingua schools when he filed for bankruptcy in 2015 to avoid creditors and income taxes, despite being the only person who has ever benefited from profits generated from the Inlingua schools.
Neither Trujillo nor his legal team could be reached for comments. His son, Leonidas Ortega Amador, also listed as a defendant in the lawsuit, did not return calls for comments. Amador told a Telemundo reporter that his sister, Maria Cristina Ortega De Marcos, was in charge of the Inlingua schools. She did not return requests for comments.
Lawyers for the Ortega family claim that it is insolvent and alleged in court last month that the trustee charged with managing Trujillo’s estate has thwarted deals to sell Inlingua.
“For many months to no avail, management has tried to obtain an investor or buyer — the ubiquitous ‘white knight,’ and settle with the Trustee,” the motion read. “The Corporate Defendants have brought deal after deal to the Trustee, all the while fighting to survive, which deals have been rejected.”
The next trial date is scheduled for Tuesday in Miami.
Cardenas, the Venezuelan student, said she received a call about three weeks ago from an office administrator at the school to tell her that Inlingua was closing and that the administrator had been fired without receiving her last paycheck. The next day, Cardenas said Amador came to the school to reassure students and staff that all was fine.
Benjamin Kell, a teacher at the Key Biscayne location, received an Oct. 21 email that said classes would continue and to “please disregard any contradictory information you may have received.”
He noticed the last check he received was from Travel, Live and Learn LLC. Past checks usually came from The Language Group LLC. Both of those companies are listed as defendants in the bankruptcy lawsuit.
Then Kell received a conciliatory email on Sunday informing teachers that the school had closed.
“As many of you know, several years ago Inlingua was dragged into a lawsuit by a Chapter 7 bankruptcy trustee in Dade County who claimed that Inlingua belonged to the bankruptcy estate he was administering in the Bankruptcy Courts,” it read. “Inlingua has incurred exorbitant attorneys’ fees defending the action which was supposed to conclude last July after a five-day trial. Yet, it will not conclude for many more months and the schools cannot sustain themselves in the meantime.”
Nora Grundy, an instructor at the Doral location, noticed when a new session started about six weeks ago that books were not available. She said the school offered special discounts to students who paid in cash.
Then payroll switched from direct deposit to paper checks, which were mailed and would arrive eight days late. Grundy said she never received her last paycheck.
“We all have been left simply stranded,” she said.
Without a clear transfer process to another school to maintain their visa statuses, Grundy has tried to help her students by contacting the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), which is run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, for guidance. Only some students, she said, have been granted transfers.
About 25 students and staff gathered outside their former school in Doral on Wednesday night to give their accounts to the news media. Many came with receipts of the hundreds of dollars paid in tuition and shared stories about the tedious transfer process to another school to avoid jeopardizing their student visas.
Under a sheet of paper that was taped to Inlingua’s door and read “school is closed” in scrawled red ink was another makeshift sign:
“Por que nos mintieron tanto incluido el personal y los dueños? [Why did they lie to us so much including the staff and the owners?]” somone wrote in pink highlighter. “Nos enganaron! [They deceived us!]“