Florida for-profit college watchdog agency clears one of its own

CIE employee Marybell Serrano and school owner Karyn Vidal toast mojitos together at Havana 1957 on Lincoln Road in this 2013 Facebook photo. The two women were recently accused of falsifying records, but a CIE investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing.
CIE employee Marybell Serrano and school owner Karyn Vidal toast mojitos together at Havana 1957 on Lincoln Road in this 2013 Facebook photo. The two women were recently accused of falsifying records, but a CIE investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing. Facebook

Florida’s for-profit college watchdog agency has closed its investigation into conflict-of-interest and fraud allegations involving one of its consumer services team employees.

“The investigation did not reveal any wrongdoing,” wrote the Commission for Independent Education in a recent close-out memo, provided to the Miami Herald.

The internal CIE probe focused on employee Marybell Serrano, who was accused of being part-owner of a for-profit college herself, and living as a roommate with the school’s majority owner, Karyn Vidal. Serrano was also accused of conspiring with Vidal to create fraudulent documents so that Vidal’s Institute of Healthcare Professions could get accredited.

The CIE found that Serrano had indeed lived with Vidal for about a year, but she paid $1,200 a month in rent, and no longer lived there. Based on company stock certificates from Vidal’s school, the CIE dismissed the allegation that Serrano owned a 2 percent stake, though it found that she had helped paint and decorate the school. The agency, which repeatedly misspelled its own employee’s name in its report, said there was nothing wrong because Serrano wasn’t getting paid.

“Essentially, the contractor IHP was using walked off the job, and Ms. [Serrano] did help paint the school, for which she was not paid. Sometimes, after hours, Ms. [Serrano] helps with seasonal decorations for which again she is not paid,” the CIE wrote.

But critics — including one of the CIE’s own former board members — say the internal review left important questions unanswered. For one, the investigation memo, addressed to CIE Executive Director Sam Ferguson, doesn’t say who at the agency performed the investigation.

Former CIE board member Gene Youngblood said the memo reveals “ineptness” and “a lack of following the trail wherever it leads.”

At a CIE meeting last month, Youngblood demanded a thorough investigation. Then his term expired, and he wasn’t reappointed by Gov. Rick Scott.

The accusations against Serrano and Vidal came from a former recruiter/instructor at Vidal’s school, Allison Sommers, who filed a complaint with both the state and the accrediting agency, the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools.

Ferguson, the CIE director, didn’t return two voicemails left on his cellphone. A spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education, which oversees the CIE, would not say who wrote the memo.

“It was a group effort,” spokeswoman Cheryl Etters responded in an email.

Vidal’s school, the Institute of Healthcare Professions, operates out of a West Palm Beach strip mall. The school owner has been friends with Serrano for more than two decades.

Serrano told the CIE the two are “longtime family friends who have vacationed together,” according to the memo.

Serrano’s job is to inspect for-profit colleges operating in South Florida. A recent Miami Herald investigation, Higher-Ed Hustle, highlighted the close ties between Florida’s for-profit oversight agency and the industry it regulates. The CIE has received more than 2,200 student complaints, but it could not identify a single instance where a complaint led to discipline against a school.

The most serious allegations against Vidal and Serrano accused the two women of falsifying documents to help Vidal’s school get accredited, and using their own relatives as fake students.

In her complaint, Sommers, the ex-employee, said the fake students were then falsely listed as having been hired by healthcare employers. An investigation by the accreditor, ACICS, is still pending.

Getting accredited is a key step for a school to be eligible for millions of dollars in federal Pell grants and student loans. Vidal’s school received accreditation from ACICS in December, and is awaiting final approval from the U.S. Department of Education to start receiving taxpayer-funded grants and loans.

Serrano did not return calls seeking comment. Vidal declined to comment. Before being a state regulator, Serrano worked at International Fine Arts College, a Miami for-profit school, between 1996 and 2002. Vidal was her boss.

Sommers provided the state and ACICS with names of relatives who were allegedly used as fake students by Serrano and Vidal.

When the Miami Herald contacted three of these relatives last month, they refused to answer whether they had attended Vidal’s school. Social media postings showed some were clearly relatives of either Serrano or Vidal.

When the CIE investigators called one employer, MedMax Medical Center, the company “did not recognize the name” of the student who was supposed to have been placed there, Evelyn Mediavilla. With a second student, named Lisa Serrano, the CIE could not find a working phone number for the employer, and wrote “the address appears to be a residence.”

Another employer did not return phone messages left by the CIE. The CIE did not identify a single outside employer who confirmed that one of Vidal’s students was actually hired.

Nevertheless, the CIE determined that Sommers’ evidence of false students and false placements was “not credible.” The CIE memo mentions a phone conversation that investigators had with Sommers, but Sommers disputed this, telling the Herald “they never spoke to me. I had no discussions with them.”

The CIE investigators were highly critical of the evidence that Sommers provided. Sommers submitted what she said were internal school documents showing the alleged phony students and phony jobs, but the CIE questioned the “authenticity” of these records. One record had the name of Osvaldo Serrano, described by Sommers as a “brother/relative” of the CIE employee, Marybell Serrano. Osvaldo Serrano is listed on an “employer survey” form for the school.

CIE investigators noted that the rest of the form was blank, and wrote “if anything, it indicates that IHP has gone to the trouble to develop a form to check the training of its graduates with the employers who hire them in an effort to ensure the success of future students.”

Was Osvaldo Serrano really a student? When the Herald called him last month, he said “it’s nobody’s business but mine and the school’s.”

With Osvaldo Serrano and another student, David Pina, the memo suggests that the CIE largely relied upon statements from the two women accused of wrongdoing — Vidal and Serrano. Pina is Marybell Serrano’s son.

“With respect to the alleged placement of David Pina and Osvaldo [Serrano], both Ms. Vidal and Ms. [Serrano] said they were both briefly placed in field, did not like it, and now work in other areas [retail and air conditioning respectively],” the CIE wrote.

The memo never states whether any of these disputed students attended the school. When the Herald asked Etters, the Department of Education spokeswoman, to clarify that, she replied, “the report speaks for itself.”

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