Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Oversight commission overlooked Florida’s for-profit college fraud

Alejandro Amor couldn't have done it without them.

The waterfront mansion, the private plane, the yacht — he owed it all to his enablers on the state’s Commission for Independent Education.

The commission had happily abided the for-profit college scam that made him rich. The CIE never questioned his mendacious claims, his sleazy recruiting tactics. Didn’t worry about Amor’s use of former strippers, “the sluttiest girls he could find,” to lure naive young men to his FastTrain “campuses.”

Supposedly, the CIE provides oversight of pro-profit colleges. Oversight? More like overlook. The commission managed not to notice as FastTrain pressured 1,300 unqualified prospects into signing up for $6,560,000 in loans and financial aid. Of course, the promised careers were just lies. What students got from FastTrain, instead, were crushing debts.

CIE paid no mind to Amor’s fraudulent empire, with so-called campuses in Miami, Kendall, Fort Lauderdale, Pembroke Pines, Tampa, Jacksonville and Clearwater. Federal prosecutors, however, were not so oblivious. A Miami federal court jury convicted Amor of conspiracy and theft Tuesday. The CIE commissioners, a collection of industry cronies, should have been cited as his abettors.

After all, Amor probably assumed his business plan was permissible in Florida. Sure, employing recruiters in “short skirts and stiletto heels” was a bit over the top, but his basic scheme hardly differed from those his fellow scoundrels employed in the state’s for-profit college industry. Other for-profits similarly left students with huge debts, shabby educations and disappointing earnings.

Disappointed students filed complaints with the CIE, of course. Yet, as my colleague Michael Vasquez reported, CIE officials can’t name a single complaint that resulted in a disciplinary action against a school. Not one in 14 years.

In the commission’s 2014-15 annual report, FastTrain was cited for conducting “a less than orderly school closure.” Of course, the less-than-orderly closure came after the feds had gone after Amor.

Last month, Dade Medical College abruptly closed six campuses — perhaps another “less than orderly closure” will be forthcoming — leaving 2,000 students in the lurch. Owner Ernesto Perez then pleaded guilty to illegal campaign contributions — which might explain why regulators overlooked Dade Medical’s tactics.

Education Management Corp., with a number of campuses in Florida, has been forced to pay more than $95 million to settle multiple lawsuits based on its own sleazy recruiting practices. But not by the CIE.

In May, state and federal regulators moved in on the Corinthian Colleges chain, with 15 campuses in Florida, forcing the company into bankruptcy. But none of that regulatory pressure had come from the CIE. The commission describes itself as a “consumer protection agency” dedicated to “protecting individual students,” but all the CIE really does is meet every few months at some exotic resort, including four gatherings since July 2014 at the storied Mission Inn Resort in Central Florida.

Mission Inn offers a “spectacular golf vacation, a romantic couple’s getaway, or a girls’ spa weekend.” A splendid setting, no doubt, where commission members can meet — among the caddies, bus boys and janitors — former FastTrain students they failed to protect.

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