Courtesy of ABC7 Students at El Camino College Compton Center
UPDATE, Oct. 31, 2013: This story updates with a comment from professor Mohammad Ghafelebashi.
Three El Camino College Compton Center professors who resigned in 2010 and 2011 gave fraudulent grades to several international students who had never attended classes, according to documents and interviews with college officials and an attorney who investigated the alleged scheme.
Some of the international students also told the district’s attorneys they had paid the instructors for grades, said Warren S. Kinsler, a partner at the law firm Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo, who helped investigate the allegations for the Compton Community College District.
The district and its lawyers spent two years and $600,000 investigating the fraud and trying to fire the professors, according to records and interviews. Ultimately, the district paid them to step down rather than continue racking up the hefty legal fees associated with trying to fire tenured professors.
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Psychology instructor Herkie Lee Williams resigned in December 2010 and received one month’s pay. Math instructors Mohammad Ghafelebashi and Mohammad Boroujerdi resigned in September 2011. The district paid settlements of $34,000 to Ghafelebashi and $26,000 to Boroujerdi.
Ghafelebashi also taught math part time at Long Beach City College from 2002 to July 2011.
In an interview, Williams denied falsifying records or receiving payment for grades.
“I just have one word: not true,” he said. “I said, well, I can’t allow my reputation to go down the drain, so I had an opportunity to resign.”
In a statement, Ghafelebashi wrote of this career: "I was always rated as the best instructor by my students. You could find my rating on the student website 'Rate My Professor' for all the colleges (where) I taught. The accusation (about) my teaching was baseless, with no proof of my wrong actions. ... I finally decided to resign, to release myself from the unfair pressure brought on me by the college."
Williams was paid $102,513 in 2010, including overtime. He is now receiving retirement benefits and living in Las Vegas.
Boroujerdi could not be reached for comment. His lawyer also declined to comment. The settlement agreements say both Ghafelebashi and Boroujerdi disputed and denied the allegations.
California Watch obtained the settlement agreements with the three instructors and the formal statements of charges against Boroujerdi and Ghafelebashi through a public records request. The statements of charges detail the allegations regarding falsification of grades and attendance records involving Boroujerdi and Ghafelebashi.
Compton Community College lost its accreditation in 2006 after reports of corruption and severe financial mismanagement. The Compton campus on East Artesia Boulevard is still open, but it operates as a satellite of El Camino College in Torrance.
Under the terms of the partnership, the El Camino Community College District is helping Compton work to regain accreditation. Meanwhile, El Camino manages Compton’s administrative functions, subject to the oversight of a special trustee appointed by the state Chancellor’s Office.
In late 2009, Keith Curry, then the dean of student services at El Camino College Compton Center, said he got a call from Cindy Shum, assistant director of international admissions at CSU San Bernardino.
Shum told Curry that several international students who were trying to transfer to CSU San Bernardino were unable to pass CSU placement exams despite earning A’s and B’s in math from the former Compton Community College, Curry said.
“(Shum) just called me out of the blue,” said Curry, who is now interim CEO of Compton Community College District. “I’ll never forget our conversation. She said, do you guys know what’s happening with these students who can’t read and write, but they’re able to pass the math courses?”
Shum told Curry she heard a rumor that students were paying for grades, Curry said. She provided names of several students and instructors, and Curry did some research. He found that the students, all of whom were from Middle Eastern countries, were taking classes from the same three instructors and that they were signing up for every level of math, even if they had tested higher or didn’t need the course.
“A student would take a calculus course the first term, and the next term they would be taking a basic skills pre-algebra course,” Curry said.
Shum did not respond to requests for an interview.
International students studying at California community colleges on F-1 visas risk their legal status if they fall below a full course load or land on academic probation.
The district hired Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo to investigate in 2009. Curry said he and the district’s lawyers discovered a pattern indicating potential fraud involving the three instructors dating back to 2004.
Curry also said he shared information about the fraud with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. A spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the agency could not confirm or deny the existence of a homeland security investigation unless a probe resulted in some otherwise public enforcement action.
After gathering evidence of falsification, the district put all three instructors on paid administrative leave and asked them to resign, but only Williams agreed to do so in fall 2010. Williams had taught psychology at the former Compton Community College part time since 1984 and full time since 2000.
Boroujerdi and Ghafelebashi refused to step down when the district asked. The district placed them on suspension without pay and filed formal charges against them in November 2010.
Even though none of the students showed up for a single class, Boroujerdi and Ghafelebashi marked each of them present for every class meeting and gave them passing grades ranging from A’s to C’s, the report said. In addition, Boroujerdi himself failed to show up for class or report his absences on six occasions during the semester, according to the charges.
Many of the students, whose last names were redacted from documents provided by the district, were from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Kinsler said. He said it was likely that there was a middleman involved in the scheme that the district’s investigators were unable to identify.
“There seemed to be a pretty good understanding that if you were having trouble in math, for example, you would go to these instructors at Compton,” Kinsler said. “We had people who would drive past several other community college districts to enroll with these gentlemen and take these classes.”
Boroujerdi was hired full time at the former Compton College in 2001. The associate professor of mathematics earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Queens College, according to district documents. Before he was suspended in November 2010, he was paid $82,401, including overtime, that year.
Ghafelebashi earned his bachelor’s degree at Tehran University in Iran and went on to get master’s and doctoral degrees in physics at Cornell University, district records show. He was hired full time at Compton in 2002. Before his suspension, Compton paid him $99,138, including overtime, in 2010.
Ghafelebashi also taught part time until July at Long Beach City College, where he was paid $26,243 in 2010-11. The human resources department at Long Beach City College had no record of whether anyone at Compton had informed the department about the investigation, a spokesman said.
Curry said after the college put the professors on leave, international student enrollment at Compton declined. The college saw a 36 percent drop in international student enrollment from 2008-09 to 2010-11, from 151 students to 99 students, data show.
“If there was word out that you can come to Compton and you can get a grade or get credit for a class, the word’s out now that you can’t,” Curry said.
After the charges were filed in fall 2010, the district’s legal costs escalated because attorneys were preparing for the dismissal hearings, Kinsler and Curry said. Before districts can fire tenured faculty members, they must have a hearing before an administrative law judge in which the Education Code provides full rights of discovery.
It was also after the charges were filed that the attorneys got their first breaks on the pay-for-grades aspect of the investigation. Kinsler said three students admitted paying for grades, but he would not say exactly how much. He described the amount as a few hundred dollars per grade.
“What we learned from some of the students was that if you paid X amount, you’d get a C; if you paid Y, you’d get a B; and if you want an A, you’d pay a little more,” he said.
Kinsler and Curry provided details about information they gathered regarding pay for grades in interviews. The district did not provide documents detailing these allegations, citing attorney-client privilege.
In 2011, the district’s investigation shifted to zero in on the payment for grades, but many of the students either changed stories or obtained legal counsel and stopped cooperating, Kinsler said.
“What could be proven on that score was not real strong,” Kinsler said.
Kinsler contacted the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office and the U.S. attorney’s office in March 2011. He said they did not have much interest because of the difficulty of proving students paid for grades.
A spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office said the college district had contacted them but had never followed up with anything in writing that would have enabled them to start an inquiry.
Partially as a result of the high legal fees, the district has for two years in a row requested exemptions from the Fifty Percent Law, a part of state Education Code that requires each community college district to spend at least half of its education dollars each year on salaries and benefits for classroom instructors.
The district’s total education expense was $28.4 million in 2010-11, but it spent $12.8 million – less than half – on salaries and benefits for teachers.
The “unanticipated, unbudgeted, and necessary expenditures for legal services” meant that the district would have been in “serious hardship” if it had to meet the requirements of the Fifty Percent Law, according to documents the district filed with the Chancellor’s Office.
The California Community Colleges Board of Governors approved the exemption earlier this month.
“From the get-go, the district was trying to get (the instructors) to resign, and they insisted (against it) up until we were nearing the point where we were in discovery preparation for evidentiary hearings,” Kinsler said.
In the end, Curry said, the district decided to settle with the instructors because doing so would be less costly to the district than continuing to pursue termination – a process he said would have taken another three or four months.
“We did what was right,” Curry said. “And what I mean by that is that we want to assure the quality of instruction for all students at El Camino Compton Center. And we want to make sure the reputation of El Camino is not tarnished by Compton Community College instructors.”
Reports of pay-for-grades schemes and international student fraud at Compton date back to 2006, when the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team – which provides fiscal advice to local education agencies – conducted an extraordinary audit of the college. The Chancellor’s Office had asked the Los Angeles County Superintendent of Schools to assign the team to conduct the audit.
Without naming names, the 2006 audit reported allegations that several employees of the college had issued thousands of fraudulent immigration forms to students from Middle Eastern countries, using Compton Community College as the school the students would be attending, when in fact the students were not attending Compton.
In another audit finding, a former student athlete complained in a letter to then-Compton College President Ulis Williams that a coach had charged him $300 for a grade change.
The audit noted that the practice of changing grades for money came up during many interviews with college staff.
“We have corrected so much since 2006 as relates to the district,” Curry said. “Our focus has always been to provide student success and quality of instruction. We corrected this issue.”