At its peak, Miami-based FastTrain College had grown to seven Florida campuses. It had ties to a sitting U.S. congressman. It was raking in millions of dollars.
The TV and radio ads for FastTrain promoted computer and medical career training, which the school promised would lead to a better life.
“Get on the Fast Train!” sang the company’s catchy jingle.
And it was all a criminal conspiracy, according to a federal indictment released Thursday. FastTrain’s specialty, prosecutors say, was defrauding the government — while coaching students to lie on federal financial aid forms.
The company’s CEO, along with three other college employees, are charged with one count of conspiracy and multiple counts of theft of government money.
FastTrain’s students complain of being used, and left with mountains of debt.
Former IT program student Roscoe Morton said students were taught using outdated computer equipment that didn’t prepare them for a job. The entire school was dishonest, Morton said, including the admissions recruiter who falsely told him that he wouldn’t have to take out any loans.
“It was just a bad experience,” Morton said. “It was just a bunch of nonsense.”
But FastTrain provided a good life for CEO Alejandro Amor, of Coral Gables. Social media posts from his family show multiple vacations: ziplining in Puerto Vallarta, fishing in the Bahamas and relaxing by the pool in St. Croix.
Amor’s wife drove a shiny Jaguar XF Portfolio. The family lived in a waterfront $2 million home and frolicked in the water on a 54-foot yacht named the “Big One.”
The Amors even had their own private plane.
The government is now trying to seize all those assets, and many more, as part of the FBI’s criminal case.
Also charged is Michael Grubbs, a former FastTrain admissions director; Anthony Mincey, a former assistant director of admissions; and Jose Gonzalez, a former admissions representative at multiple campuses, including the Fort Lauderdale campus.
At the heart of the scam, according to the indictment: FastTrain violated federal rules that require students to have either a high school diploma or a GED before signing up. The indictment outlines numerous alleged instances where FastTrain administrators broke this rule. Students were misled to believe that a high school diploma wasn’t required, or that they could earn it while attending the college.
In one instance, at the Fort Lauderdale campus, FastTrain is accused of telling a prospective student that she could “earn” her high school diploma by taking an exam that the school provided her. After the exam was done, FastTrain gave the student “a fictitious and fraudulent diploma from Cornerstone Christian Academy,” the indictment states.
All told, prosecutors say 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.
The payoff: FastTrain received $6,560,000 in Pell grants and student loans for those students.
Mark Schnapp, a defense attorney for Amor, said the government’s allegations against his client are “wrong.”
“If students were found to be ineligible to receive a grant or loan, they were either not accepted or if they had already started their studies, the money was returned to the government at a loss to the school,” he said.
Schnapp said FastTrain “provides skills and opportunities to an under-served community in a difficult economic time. It is proud of its achievements in training its student base."
In Washington and in Tallahassee, oversight of for-profit colleges is weak. Numerous other schools have been accused of fraudulent or dishonest practices, and it is rare that anyone from the schools is criminally charged.
Florida, meanwhile, is a hotbed of for-profit college growth. Nearly one in five Florida students attends a for-profit college.
FastTrain donated heavily to politicians, as is typical with for-profit schools. Amor, the CEO, wrote checks to the Republican Party of Florida, Charlie Crist’s independent party campaign for the U.S. Senate, and South Florida congressional Democrats Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Alcee Hastings.
Hastings, in particular, had close ties to FastTrain. In addition to receiving at least $6,500 in donations from Amor, Hastings delivered the commencement speach at a FastTrain graduation ceremony, and the college established a “Leadership Scholarship” in Hastings’ name.
Hastings’ press secretary did not return a call Thursday, nor respond to an email. The congressman is not mentioned in the indictment released Thursday.
The FastTrain empire fell under a dark cloud after the FBI raided multiple campuses in May 2012. About a month and a half later, all seven campuses were shuttered.
Aside from the new criminal charges, Amor and FastTrain are also the target of a federal whistle-blower lawsuit filed by a former admissions employee at the school’s Flagler campus, which operated at 5555 West Flagler St. in Miami. That suit also alleges massive taxpayer fraud, and says FastTrain’s “business model is to enroll as many students as possible in order to become the beneficiary of more federal funding.”
“To achieve this purpose,” the suit continues, “admissions representatives drive to low-income neighborhoods and tell people that if they get in the car, they will receive a quality education and job opportunities. Admissions representatives then drive carloads of prospective students to a FastTrain campus so that enrollment and financial aid paperwork can be completed. Many of these students do not read or understand English, cannot write their own name, do not have high school diplomas or equivalents, and do not have identification cards.”