Education

FastTrain College owner convicted of theft, conspiracy

FastTrain’s now-shuttered Fort Lauderdale campus
FastTrain’s now-shuttered Fort Lauderdale campus Miami Herald file

Miami for-profit college operator Alejandro Amor had a 54-foot yacht, a $2 million waterfront home and his own private plane.

Now he’s headed to prison.

On Tuesday, a Miami federal jury convicted Amor of 12 counts of theft of government money, and one count of conspiracy. He was taken into custody immediately, and will be sentenced on Feb. 3. The theft charges each carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison, and the conspiracy charge a maximum of five years.

Before being raided by the FBI in 2012, 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.

For those ineligible students, FastTrain received $6,560,000 in Pell grants and student loans. For-profit colleges are known for aggressive recruiting, but FastTrain turned it up a notch. Ex-employees told investigators that Amor boosted enrollments by hiring former strippers as recruiters, some of whom wore “short skirts and stiletto heels” to work.

Amor told one employee to “hire some hot mommas” and “hire the sluttiest girls he could find.”

FastTrain’s TV and radio ads had a catchy jingle — “Get on the Fast Train!” — and promoted the school’s computer and medical training programs. One commercial featured a FastTrain graduate getting paid with a giant mock paycheck.

Amor’s conviction comes at a time when Florida’s for-profit college industry is reeling from a series of scandals: Less than four weeks ago, Coral Gables-based Dade Medical College abruptly closed its six campuses, after the federal Department of Education started scrutinizing the college’s finances. The closure left 2,000 students stranded.

Exactly 10 days later, Dade Medical owner Ernesto Perez pleaded guilty to illegally bundling more than $159,000 in campaign contributions to politicians. Perez received no jail time, but will serve two months of house arrest, along with three years of probation.

Then, last week, the nation’s second-largest for-profit college chain, Education Management Corp., paid $95 million to settle allegations from the Department of Justice that it improperly compensated its recruiters based on how many students they enrolled. Such payments are outlawed because they encourage overly aggressive recruiting practices.

A recent Miami Herald investigation, Higher-Ed Hustle, highlighted how students at many of Florida’s for-profit colleges complained that they were pressured to enroll by recruiters who made false promises, or misled them about what kind of accreditation the college had.

For-profits enroll nearly one in five Florida students, and the schools have used political connections to boost their credibility and influence. FastTrain was no different.

Amor’s college had close ties in particular with U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Miramar Democrat who is a strong supporter of for-profit schools. Hastings has received at least $81,250 in contributions from the “career college” industry, including $6,500 from FastTrain.

The congressman delivered the commencement speech at a FastTrain graduation ceremony in 2011. FastTrain established a Leadership Scholarship in Hastings’ name.

Reached by phone this week, Hastings said he supports all kind of colleges, including public community colleges, not just for-profit ones.

“If you held a pistol on me right now, I could not tell you the name of the person who has been investigated,” Hastings said, referring to Amor.

When it came to high school diplomas, FastTrain took advantage of lax federal rules that are vulnerable to abuse. A college that wants to enroll ineligible students can accept diplomas from a “diploma mill” — one that issues bogus credentials for a fee.

Some accreditors allow their colleges to take a student’s word that he or she finished high school. The student signs an “attestation” form and no further verification is done.

FastTrain operated campuses in Miami, Kendall, Fort Lauderdale, Pembroke Pines, Tampa, Jacksonville, and Clearwater. Between 2007 and 2012 — combining all campuses and both eligible and ineligible students — FastTrain received $35,026,608 in taxpayer-funded Pell grants and federal loans.

Some colleges simply take a student’s word that he or she finished high school. The student signs an “attestation” form and no further verification is done.

During the trial, Amor’s attorney, Alexander Angueira, said any fraud at the school was done by rogue employees. He told jurors that Amor was an honest operator who wrote memos instructing his employees to follow the rules.

“If you have a concern that someone is violating any regulations or policies, please bring them to my attention,” Amor wrote in a March 29, 2011, email to one employee.

But ex-employees testified that Amor’s ethical instructions to staff were a smokescreen to hide what was really going on.

Juan Arreola, a former FastTrain admissions director, testified that Amor personally coached the staff on how to do a better job forging signatures. The man who held Arreola’s job before him, Theo Gibbings, testified that Amor ordered him to halt an internal investigation of improprieties at the college.

“I was shocked,” Gibbings said. “I said ‘Alex, this is not right.’ ”

Students who testified included Gabriel Hernandez, who enrolled at FastTrain even though he didn’t have a high school diploma, and was only 15 years old.

Former student Bianca Reed — who also lacked a high school diploma — testified that she started a student petition because of the irregularities she saw. Reed discovered there were other students without diplomas, and she testified that some students were dealing drugs outside the FastTrain building. A bus driver employed by FastTrain was buying drugs from the students, Reed testified.

Reed said she was expelled by FastTrain for attempting to organize students.

During FastTrain’s years of operation, Florida’s for-profit college oversight agency, the Commission for Independent Education, received more than 30 complaints from students.

In one March 2012 complaint, a student studying computer technology at FastTrain told the state that the hardware and software being used was outdated — and that was hardly the only problem.

“The instruction I received was at best awful,” the student wrote. “The school was not interested in teaching students but rather interested in processing student loans for financial gains.”

That complaint, like all of the other student complaints received by the CIE, was dismissed. The CIE, in its 14 years of existence, could not identify a single example of a student complaint leading to discipline against any school. Most of the agency’s board members are for-profit college executives.

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