The FBI raided campuses of Florida-based FastTrain College on Wednesday. The for-profit school has multiple ties to Representative Alcee Hastings (D-FL), who has been a fervent backer of for-profit education companies. This industry has lobbied Congress fiercely in recent years to avoid accountability for waste, fraud, and abuse at the expense of students and taxpayers.
An FBI spokesperson said the Bureau executed a search warrant at FastTrain's Jacksonville campus as part of a joint investigation by the FBI and the U.S. Department of Education. The South Florida Business Journal saw an FBI agent at the FastTrain campus in Pembroke Pines, which was temporarily closed. One report says the investigation found "deceptive and otherwise questionable sales and marketing practices." Jacksonville TV stations reported that FBI agents retrieved records and computers and also asked students arriving on campus about their federal Pell grants. One student said FastTrain billed her $32,000 for one year, including for charges she did not understand, such as $3,072 for room and board when FastTrain apparently does not offer on-campus housing.
U.S. Department of Education spokesman Justin Hamilton told Republic Report that the Department's "Office of Inspector General is conducting search warrants at campuses of FastTrain College in Florida as a part of a criminal investigation. The FBI is involved. Per its policy, and to protect and maintain the integrity of its investigation, the OIG does not discuss any of its ongoing work."
FastTrain's president, CEO, and owner is Alejandro Amor. In November 2011, at FastTrain's first ever formal graduation ceremony, Congressman Hastings delivered the commencement address, and Amor announced the establishment of the Congressman Alcee Hastings Annual Leadership Scholarship. Hastings also spoke at FastTrain's Fort Lauderdale campus in May 2011.
FastTrain CEO Amor has donated $5,000 to Hastings' campaign in this election cycle. Hastings has received this cycle at least $35,000 in donations from for-profit college companies and officials, including Apollo (owner of University of Phoenix), DeVry, Keiser, Bridgepoint, Education Management Corp., Full Sail University, Corinthian, and the trade association APSCU. (FastTrain is an APSCU member.)
Search these schools on Republic Report and elsewhere, and you'll see records of poor performance, shady practices, and high student debt, which explains the campaign contributions to Hastings and many others -- they need Congress to protect them from oversight and keep their profits flowing. Hastings has risen to the task, repeatedly defending the for-profit education industry at critical moments, including the House's attempt to block the Obama administration from implementing a rule that would cut off federal aid to predatory programs that consistently leave students unable to pay back their loans.
FastTrain, which has eight Florida campuses, looks to be in particular need of protection from scrutiny. The college complaint websites are full of troublesome reports. These are unverified but, given the FBI raid, worth followup. Here's a sample from one, allegedly from a former FastTrain employee:
I was wrongfully terminated after being a loyal employee of over 3 years but because I complained about being threatened and sexually harrassed. I was fired a week later with no grounds.
First, we have beautiful girls who go out and solicit men in the Miami area and then bring them in their cars back to the school in Broward County. Most of them have had a criminal record or are going to jail soon etc., but they still enroll them. Some of them dont even have a high school diploma but Admissions tells them to lie and say that they do...
Lets not forget how they falsify documents and student records. ACICS came for an accredidation visit not too long ago and we did not have a medical lab at the time as FastTrain told them we did. They then brought in a lab with all the medical equipment and set it up at the campus for their visit. Once inspection at our campus was complete, they packed up the medical lab and brought it to the next campus to fool them about them having a lab too...
A person answering the telephone at FastTrain told me this morning that no one was available to comment on the FBI investigation and then immediately hung up. A spokesperson for Congressman Hastings did not respond today to a phone call and followup email requesting comment.
There's nothing that connects Hastings to specific wrongdoing at FastTrain, but the congressman has had his own ethical challenges, including having been impeached and removed from his federal judgeship by Congress in 1989 over charges of bribery and perjury, after he had been acquitted in a criminal trial. His highest-paid congressional staff member is also his girlfriend. And then there's Hastings's approach to the for-profit college issue: Take contributions from rich predatory education companies, then support those companies' obstructionist policies, which rip off taxpayers and ruin the lives of students, including his own constituents.
The original version of this piece appeared on Republic Report.