November 30, 2015

Are Florida lawmakers ready to tackle for-profit college abuses?


After a year of repeated for-profit college scandals — including the recent closure of Dade Medical College — Florida lawmakers are poised to consider new, tougher rules governing the schools.

The change follows several years in which lawmakers loosened standards and opened up more public money to for-profits. For the moment, the buzz is about greater consumer protections at the schools, which rely heavily on taxpayer money but receive little government oversight.

For-profit colleges enroll nearly one in five Florida college students — close to 300,000 students in total.

Though lawmakers are talking about stronger regulations, the proposals so far aren’t as aggressive as what some other states have done to protect students. And some Florida lawmakers may be hesitant to take any action whatsoever against an industry that donates generously to political campaigns, and has many powerful friends.

That’s particularly true in the conservative House. Two House lawmakers who chair important education-related committees were previously honored as “legislator of the year” by the for-profit college industry.

The 2016 legislative session starts on Jan. 12. Committee meetings have already begun.

One for-profit college bill that’s being debated would shut down schools with student loan default rates over 40 percent — resulting in the closure of a handful of beauty schools and barber colleges. It easily passed its first Senate committee stop in mid-November.

Other proposals are directly linked to the fallout from the Oct. 30 closure of Dade Medical College.

More here.

Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio dominate PolitiFact Florida's Top 5 for November 2015


Statements by South Florida’s GOP presidential rivals Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio led PolitiFact Florida’s website in November, touching on taxes and Rubio’s spending while speaker of the Florida House.

Here are the five most-read fact-checks from PolitiFact Florida in November, counting down to the most popular.

November 24, 2015

Miami for-profit college owner goes to prison, had ties to U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings


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 will be sentenced on Feb. 3.

Before being raided by the FBI in 2012, 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.

In return, FastTrain received $6,560,000 in Pell grants and student loans for those students. 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 allegedly told one employee to “hire some hot mommas” and “hire the sluttiest girls he could find.”

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 non-eligible students can accept diplomas from a “diploma mill” school — and there is no federal or state of Florida list that identifies known diploma mills.

Some accreditors allow their colleges to simply take a student’s word that they finished high school. The student signs an “attestation” that they have a diploma, and no further verification is done.

More here.

November 19, 2015

Double whammy: Dade Medical College may have broken state, federal laws


Dade Medical College’s Oct. 30 closure was sudden and messy — and it also may have violated state and federal law.

Under Florida law, for-profit colleges that close must provide the state oversight agency a “teach out” plan for students to finish up their degree program at another school. The federal government also requires a teach out plan before a college shuts its doors.

In Dade Medical’s case, that didn’t happen. College owner Ernesto Perez simply closed up shop and left roughly 2,000 students in limbo.

On Thursday, a prominent for-profit college attorney called for Perez to be prosecuted for how the closure happened.

“It is a crime in the state of Florida to close a school improperly,” said Bob Harris, a Tallahassee attorney who represents multiple for-profit colleges. Harris’ public comments came during a meeting of Florida’s for-profit oversight agency, the Commission for Independent Education.

“This commission can go to the attorney general’s office, or a local state attorney’s office, provide them the documents to show that the owners of the school did not properly close the school,” Harris told CIE board members. “Those are criminal acts in the state of Florida.”

Florida law states it is a second-degree misdemeanor for “an owner, director or administrator who fails to notify the commission at least 30 days prior to the institution’s closure, or who fails to organize the orderly closure of the institution and the trainout of the students.”

More here.

November 18, 2015

Dade Medical College files bankruptcy-like petition in court


Dade Medical College has filed a court petition to sell its assets — setting in motion a process that could lead to paying some of the money owed to creditors and ex-employees.

It’s the equivalent of a bankruptcy filing, but in state court

Students who attended the school may qualify for some money as well, though students who file a claim will likely end up in the back of the line, getting paid only after secured creditors, government agencies and ex-employees who are owed back wages.

Roughly 2,000 students were displaced by Dade Medical’s sudden closure on Oct. 30 — many left tens of thousands of dollars in debt, with college credits that won’t transfer to traditional colleges.

Additionally, there are students who graduated or dropped out before the closure and who say the college deceived them about the accreditation of its programs, or failed to deliver the quality of education that it promised.

A recent Miami Herald investigation, Higher-Ed Hustle, highlighted how Florida lawmakers have strongly encouraged the growth of for-profit colleges. The Legislature has weakened academic standards, allowed for-profits to access additional state money and stifled the growth of competing public community colleges, which charge much lower tuition.

More here

November 16, 2015

Another for-profit college chain in trouble: EDMC to pay $95M


The nation’s second-largest for-profit college company, Education Management Corp., will pay more than $95 million to settle multiple lawsuits alleging the company broke federal law in how it paid its recruiters.

The settlement deal, announced by the U.S. Department of Justice on Monday, also includes loan forgiveness for some students who enrolled at EDMC schools. The company, which did not acknowledge any wrongdoing, operates the Art Institutes, Argosy University, Brown Mackie College and South University.

There are seven Florida campuses: Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Sarasota, Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville. A spokesman for Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said that Florida students would receive $6.5 million in loan forgiveness.

In a Washington news conference carried on C-SPAN, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch called the settlement a “historic step forward in our collective and ongoing fight against fraudulent and abusive practices in the for-profit education industry.”

But Lynch acknowledged that the $95 million payout would have been higher if not for EDMC’s current financial problems. The gigantic company has been closing campuses and laying off hundreds of employees — a dramatic fall from a few years ago, when it counted Goldman Sachs as one of its owners, and was trading at $18 a share on the NASDAQ stock exchange.

“An important part of this settlement was factoring in the company’s ability to pay,” Lynch said. “So it does not reflect the total amount of federal funds that we believe were fraudulently obtained.”

Pittsburgh-based EDMC still enrolls more than 100,000 students, and still gets about 90 percent of its revenue from taxpayer-funded financial aid programs such as Pell grants and federal student loans, Lynch said. Over the years, EDMC received billions of dollars in Pell grants and loans — a U.S. Senate Committee found EDMC received $1.8 billion in federal funds in a single year, 2010.

“That’s all of our money, all of us, as taxpayers,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Monday.

More here.

November 12, 2015

Lawmaker renews call for body camera regulations, after police officer who shot Corey Jones is terminated


Shev jonesA Broward County lawmaker is renewing his call for more transparency and accountability measures from law enforcement, now that the Palm Beach Gardens police officer who shot Corey Jones last month has been fired.

Palm Beach Gardens officials announced Nouman Raja's termination today. (More here.)

“Those of us who have sought justice in this case still have been shortchanged of meaningful information,” Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, said in a statement. “Even with the firing, we don’t know the details of how the police department reached this decision. Our quest for justice begins with transparency and facts."

“This is just the beginning,” he added. “We have a long way to go until we get justice for Corey Jones."

Jones said justice and transparency can come from more accurate records of police shootings, such as those which might be provided by dash-camera or body-camera footage -- neither of which is available in the investigation of Corey Jones' death.

Corey Jones was shot dead at 3 a.m. Oct. 18 on an I-95 off-ramp in Palm Beach County after his car broke down. Raja was on duty in plain clothes and driving an unmarked police van, when he stopped to investigate what he thought was an abandoned vehicle. Jones was shot three times.

The unmarked police van had no dash camera, and Raja wore no body camera, because the Palm Beach Gardens Police Department doesn't own or use the devices.

Shevrin Jones has again proposed legislation that would require police agencies to have policies and protocols in place if they choose to use body cameras, but his bill falls short of mandating use of the devices. (More here.)

“Body cameras won’t necessarily save a life,” Shevrin Jones said. “Matters like these will allow for the police force to set forth rules and regulations for the officers, and the proper protocol and procedure in handling them.”

Photo credit: The Florida Channel

November 11, 2015

Cause damage with your drone? You might have to pay up



As unmanned commercial drones continue climbing in popularity, so does the potential for accidents in which wayward devices might physically harm people or damage property.

Under current Florida law, there’s nothing a victim could do about such an accident, so a Republican state senator from Miami said he wants to fill that “void in the law.”

The proposal from state Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla would provide a legal recourse for victims of drone accidents to recoup their expenses should a drone — for example — lose control and hit a high-voltage electric line or tumble into a crowd of people.

“They’re very hard to control and they can cause massive damage if they fall,” Diaz de la Portilla said of the devices, which can have a variety of functions and sizes, ranging from personal cameras that can be lofted into the air to armed military aircraft.

Senate Bill 642 would allow people to recover costs from the owner and operator of a drone if the device “was a substantial contributing factor” in causing the damage. The manufacturer and distributor of the device also could be sued if the damage resulted from a defect or design flaw.

Photo credit: AP

November 10, 2015

Miami-Dade legislative delegation announces new leaders for 2016 session

Jose felix diaz


Reps. Jose Felix Diaz and Jose Javier Rodriguez will lead Miami-Dade County's legislative delegation for the 2016 session that begins in January, the delegation announced today.

Diaz, R-Miami, will serve as chairman, replacing Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami. Diaz spent the past four years as the delegation's vice-chairman.

Rodriguez, D-Miami, will succeed him in that post.

Both were elected unanimously by the 24-member group, which Diaz called "a surreal honor."

"Miami-Dade's delegation is the strongest, largest, and most united delegation in our great state," Diaz said. "We hope this will be indicative of our delegation's willingness to usher in a new era of cooperation and statesmanship."

The delegation has 13 Republicans and 11 Democrats between the county's six Senate and 18 House seats. The chairman and vice-chairman, elected annually, spearhead the delegation's legislative agenda and priorities.

Photo credit: State Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami. Courtesy of

November 09, 2015

Dade Medical College owner Ernesto Perez gets house arrest, probation


For-profit college operator Ernesto Perez — a big-time donor to South Florida politicians — officially pleaded guilty Monday to illegally bundling more than $159,000 in campaign contributions.

Perez, who owned Dade Medical College, will surrender in January to begin serving house arrest and probation.

Perez’s official sentence is three days in jail, but because the college operator is receiving credit for time already served, there will be no additional days behind bars.

The plea deal was first discussed last week when Perez was arrested on the campaign finance charges. It was postponed until Monday so attorneys on both sides could work out the details.

Perez also receives three years of probation, plus two months of house arrest. The college owner agreed to pay $150,000 to law enforcement for the cost of the investigation — $95,000 of which he has already paid, lawyers announced.

Perez will also make $50,000 in required charitable donations. The college owner will not be required to pay any restitution to his former students — Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office spokesman Ed Griffith said this is because the criminal charges settled on Monday dealt with Perez’s personal conduct, and not the actions of Dade Medical College.

More here.