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'Sham university' board chair faced allegations before

The U.S. attorney's office has filed a complaint against Tri-Valley University, Pleasanton.

The board chairman of a "sham university" that the U.S. attorney's office alleges helped people illegally obtain student immigration status in exchange for millions of dollars has been accused of running a diploma mill before.

The U.S. attorney's office filed a Jan. 19 complaint for forfeiture of property owned by the president of Tri-Valley University in Pleasanton, saying the private college was running a front for illegal immigration, the Associated Press has reported.

Before he was advisory board chair and a faculty member at Tri-Valley University, Ronald Cottle was founder and president of Christian Life School of Theology, based in Georgia.

Christian Life students complained that they had been duped into believing the school was accredited, prompting the school to reach a settlement with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board in 2003, agreeing to refund tuition. Christian Life, which later changed its name to Beacon University, also received a settlement payment in exchange for no longer awarding degrees, according to a report in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. 

Cottle did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Tri-Valley University is still under investigation and no criminal charges have been filed, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office said. The Jan. 19 civil complaint seeks to forfeit five properties in Pleasanton and Livermore owned by Tri-Valley's chief operating officer, Susan Su. Officials argue Su obtained the properties using the proceeds of an elaborate scheme to defraud.

According to the complaint, Su and others used Tri-Valley to illegally provide student visas to foreign nationals in return for tuition.

Su lied in a petition she filed with the Department of Homeland Security seeking to enroll foreign students on F-1 visas at Tri-Valley, the complaint said. The college was required to submit evidence that its credits had been accepted unconditionally by at least three established universities.

Su's petition included three agreements with accredited colleges that said each had accepted credits earned by students at Tri-Valley. The Department of Homeland Security approved Tri-Valley's application in February 2009. But when Immigration and Customs Enforcement began investigating, the agency found at least two of the agreements Su submitted were false, according to the complaint.

The college's records indicate that it had enrolled 939 foreign nationals as of May 2010, and 95 percent of were citizens of India. That number ballooned to 1,555 by December 2010, the complaint says. The college had also claimed in mandated reports to ICE that more than half of the students, who paid up to $2,700 per semester in tuition, were living at a single apartment in Sunnyvale.

During the investigation, Su signed official forms certifying attendance for students who did not actually attend the university.

The complaint also alleged that Tri-Valley's referral system resembled a pyramid scheme. Foreign national students could collect up to 20 percent of the tuition of any new student he or she referred, plus 5 percent of the tuition of any new student that the referred student referred.

In an e-mailed response to questions from California Watch, Su said Tri-Valley offers online classes of high quality and is not a sham. She said the articulation agreements were with San Francisco State University, Central Florida University and University of East Western Medicine were genuine, and that ICE officials had failed to find the right people at the universities to verify these agreements were real.

Tri-Valley applied last April for an exemption from the Bureau of Private Postsecondary Education, which oversees private higher education institutions operating in California. Schools that are accredited by one of four major accrediting bodies are exempt.

The bureau denied Tri-Valley's application because it did meet that requirement, serving the denial on Jan. 19, the same day that ICE officials raided the Tri-Valley offices, said Russ Heimerich, spokesman for the Department of Consumer Affairs. 

Meanwhile, many Tri-Valley students could be deported if they are found to have violated immigration law, the Associated Press reports. Officials with ICE have forced some students to wear ankle bracelets that monitor their movements. The Indian consulate has been urging U.S. officials to stop requiring the monitors. 

 

Filed under: Higher Ed, Daily Report

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