• April 19, 2014

Criminal Trial of Former Dean Could Be a Preview of Fraud Case Against Kaplan

This week's criminal trial of a former Kaplan University dean accused of sending threatening messages via the university's computer system could turn into a seamy preview of his billion-dollar whistle-blower lawsuit against Kaplan.

The former dean, Ben Wilcox, says Kaplan officials have framed him to undermine his allegations of widespread misconduct by Kaplan. So as part of his criminal defense, his lawyers plan to introduce testimony and reams of evidence that they say will show that the for-profit university inflated grades, misled prospective students, enrolled its own employees to fraudulently obtain federal student-aid funds, and falsified documents to obtain accreditation.

They also say they will show that Kaplan paid $100,000 to a female employee—now Mr. Wilcox's wife—to buy her silence about an alleged sexual assault on her at a Kaplan corporate event.

Jury selection was under way on Monday, and opening statements in the case are expected on Tuesday in a federal court in Chicago. Among those expected to be called as witnesses by the government are Kaplan Inc.'s current chief executive, Andrew S. Rosen, and its former chief executive, Jonathan N. Grayer.

Kaplan, a subsidiary of the Washington Post Company, maintains that Mr. Wilcox's assertions are untrue. "On the eve of his trial by the U.S. Department of Justice, Wilcox has suddenly raised allegations that he has made unsuccessfully in the past, in order to divert attention from his own conduct," a company spokesman said in a written statement.

Mr. Wilcox is accused of six counts of sending threatening messages via computer in June 2007. He contends that he was framed by Kaplan executives to discredit his future testimony "in a potentially devastating civil proceeding."

In his motion seeking to introduce the evidence of a frame-up, Mr. Wilcox says he initially and falsely confessed to the crimes to FBI agents in a "rather misguided attempt at chivalry." He did so, he says, because it seemed the agents were looking to accuse his then-girlfriend, Kari Jorgensen, and at the time he believed that "out of anger over the sexual assault, she might have sent them."

He now contends that the e-mails were orchestrated by some of his Kaplan superiors who had threatened that "his life would be ruined if he persevered in his plan to expose Kaplan's acts of fraud" by filing a whistle-blower lawsuit.

He says the messages originated from a Benedictine University student's e-mail account and suggests that one of the former Kaplan executives who had threatened him, David Harpool, was involved in sending them. According to Mr. Wilcox's motion, Mr. Harpool was involved with another Kaplan employee who attended Benedictine at the time. Mr. Wilcox also contends that he had observed Mr. Harpool fabricate e-mails before to discredit another former employee, Carlos Urquilla-Diaz. (Mr. Urquilla-Diaz, like Mr. Wilcox, is party to one of four whistle-blower lawsuits against Kaplan now pending in a federal court in Miami.)

Mr. Harpool is now provost at Westwood College. Through a Westwood spokesman, he declined to comment.

In pretrial motions, government lawyers had attempted to block the line of testimony from Mr. Wilcox, at one point even likening Mr. Wilcox's defense strategy to that of the Oklahoma City courthouse bomber Timothy McVeigh, who had tried to introduce speculative evidence that others could have had a motive for that crime. But the presiding judge, Blanche M. Manning, didn't buy the lawyers' argument.

Mr. Wilcox "has identified specific threats by others to engage in the very conduct of which he is accused," she wrote in a November 22 court order allowing testimony about the alleged frame-up of Mr. Wilcox. "In addition, the threats came from at least one person whom Wilcox contends he had observed engage in similar conduct in the past."

Judge Manning did, however, impose some limits. She has advised Mr. Wilcox that he and his wife can testify only about topics on which they have first-hand evidence, to avoid turning the criminal trial into a "sideshow trial within the actual trial." And, as she pointedly noted, the trial is slated to last no more than a week, so in presenting witnesses and testimony, "parties should allocate their time wisely.'

As for the civil whistle-blower cases, the federal judge in Miami overseeing those cases is expected to rule within a few weeks on which of the various allegations will be dismissed, and which will be taken to trial in a consolidated case.


1. feudi - November 30, 2010 at 08:31 am

It looks like the feds are wise to look into these for profit chains. I wonder how this story is playing out in the Washington Post, parent company...

2. disembedded - November 30, 2010 at 09:16 am

Oh my...the plot thickens! David Harpool's name emerges...this was the man who helped orchestrate the Argosy Univ/EMC takeover of the Illinois School of Professinal Psychology, which then led to the reputed rapid decline in ISPP's academic standards and reputatuion. And the Argosy/Chicago unit is one of the institutions recently charged by the Feds. with fraudulent admissions practices. The beat goes on....

3. willynilly - November 30, 2010 at 10:21 am

No surprises here. Most everyone whose eyes open every day, knew of the fraudulent practices that were consistently practiced by the for-profits. They learned from each other and actually passed on each and every new fraudulent idea they invented to their sister institutions so they too could illegally benefit. Students who actually attended these places openly reported these questionable behavious to family, friends and to professionals in traditional higher education, but no one took any corrective action. Thanks to Ben Wilcox, the lid has been publicly blown off this disgraceful mess and eventually integrity should be returned to the higher education market place. If anyone is holding stock in any of these losers, it is time to dump it.

4. ehmurray - November 30, 2010 at 10:31 am

Faculty are the ultimate guardians of the academy. They must repudiate corrupt practices when they see them. Many administrations (but not all) are incapable of self-policing. This incredible series of plot twists is unworthy of educated men and women. It more resembles the sophomoric behavior attributed to fraternities. This is what happens when business persons with no academic background attempt to manage a sholarly function.

5. venganza - November 30, 2010 at 10:52 am

......as if this doesn't go on in the cesspools of government-run schools!

6. drchu - November 30, 2010 at 12:14 pm

ehmurray - contingent faculty who are working for scraps are your "ultimate guardians." Many such faculty teach multiple sections for multiple schools simultaneously to make a living. How much interest in the integrity of the school do you think they have?

7. haohtt - November 30, 2010 at 12:49 pm

If the allegations here are true, then those responsible deserve what they get. However, to allege that all 3,600 for-profit institutions engage in grade inflation and the other practices, whil none of the 3,000+ non-profits do not is pure ignorance. Yes, I know all about the false dichotomy: "All non-profits only care about students and the quality of education while all for-profits only care about cutting quality and enhancing the bottom line." Another ignorant fantasy.

8. rhetorature - November 30, 2010 at 12:50 pm

Exactly what venzaga says. Please! "Inflated grades," indeed. Where aren't they inflated?

9. jbarman - November 30, 2010 at 12:51 pm

Good point, drchu - though I did quit teaching for one school that allowed 50% of its students to receive incompletes each term, where the administration was way too soft on plagiarism (10%-20% of my students plagiarised. I was told to keep working with them until they got it right), and where there was pressure to award nothing under a "B-" for a final grade.

I eventually told the Dean I was no longer interested in teaching due to the inordinate tolerance of plagiarism - as well as the fact that half my time was devoted to finding and remediating such plagiarism (I taught finance and can only imagine the problems in more qualitative courses). The Dean simply said "good luck".

By the way, this was a private, not-for-profit, regionally-accredited institution that was banking on online enrollments to balance its anemic on-ground enrollments.

10. doctorthomas - November 30, 2010 at 01:30 pm

WOW @willynilly.

Paint with a broad brush much? I hope you are not in higher education because you'll soon recognize that for-profits are the future of higher ed. States are running out of money to subsidize students at the rate of thousands of dollars per student per year. Leveraging the rules of the market are going to supplant the archaic models of higher education we are paying for now.
It's not that state universities don't educate well -- its that they do so at a higher cost per student than needs be.

11. rblackstar - November 30, 2010 at 02:04 pm

This is not to say that these practices do not go on in public institutions; however, there is more accountability (and bureaucracy) that public institutions are mandated and have to follow according to state and federal laws.

As an educator at a public institution, my personal experience has shown that this is much more difficult to do on a large scale in a public university setting such as these private universities have done, but this is not to say that it never happens - as in the case of students who have connections to athletics, alumnus, and monetary donors.

As for the future of for-profit colleges and universities becoming the future of higher education; analyze education through a historical lens. It is clear that completely privatizing higher education (or education in general) will not solve the challenges they are facing.

12. royal_blue - November 30, 2010 at 03:35 pm

Having worked at a private, "non-profit" university, a public "non-profit" college, and a "for-profit" university, I can give insight on many of the various challenges that each type of institution faces. However, painting any of these with a broad brush is a mistake.
To say that most administrators "cannot police themselves" is falsely accusatory. In fact, I would contest that the contrary is more likely - the faculty regularly fail to apply the same standards to themselves as they do to their "hated bosses!"
To state that all "for-profit" schools are out to "make a buck" is pure nonsense!!
Public education has many flaws and the lack of initiative being taken to "evlove" and change practices is frankly disturbing.
If this makes for-profit online schools viewed as "money grabbers", than so be it...

13. ardub44 - November 30, 2010 at 05:01 pm

Thanks to jbarman for noticing the elephant in the room and to rblackstar and royal_blue for continuing the discussion. As another longtime faculty member at both university and community college levels, I must say that a serious, close scrutiny of the same practices in the public sector is long overdue. My observation and the comments of colleagues across the campus and nation make it clear that the system is riddled with the same fraudulent practices. The community college for which I worked the longest routinely passed woefully substandard students, thus vicitimizing many, and the administration was complicit. The extent often was stunning; in a specific instance, I was pressured repeatedly by an academic counselor to pass a failing student solely on the grounds that her student loan was her only income source. The anecdotes are legion. Many colleges require unrealistic volumes of federally subsidized, and unqualified, students in order to stay afloat, not to mention covering equally unrealistic capital expansion.

14. czander - November 30, 2010 at 05:02 pm

From 2003 to 2010 top executives at the top 15 U.S. publicly traded for-profit colleges received $2 billion from the proceeds of selling company stock (Hechinger and Lauerman, 2010). At the same time, these schools had the worst loan-default and four-year-college dropout rates in U.S. higher education history. Since 2003, nine for-profit college insiders sold more than $45 million of stock each while receiving 90 percent of their revenues from government grants and loans.

15. doctorthomas - November 30, 2010 at 05:06 pm

@rblackstar ...actually, through a historical lens, the very first higher ed institutions in the U.S. started as private colleges. Harvard (New College), Yale, etc....not only this, but they were mostly all religiously affiliated.

Todays public institutions are the ones who broke with tradition and history.

16. softshellcrab - November 30, 2010 at 06:46 pm

I am using a "broad brush". I will continue to do so. For-profit schools are all "fake schools", and basically garbage. They merely sell degrees, and are interested only in keeping students and their money at all costs. I have taught for them, and they are garbage. The worst are the online classes, which are also largely fake school also. My regular school, a not-particularly-prestigious, average state school, is light years, and I mean many light years, ahead in its standards and rigor. We actually care about grading and standards, and flunk out many students who cannot handle the classes. Not so with for-profits.

One commentator above writes about his community college not having standards. Of course! It's a community college. The local one we have in our area is just an overgrown high school, in fact far below the typical high school in its lack of standards.

Close all for-profit schools, and quit wasting our taxpayer dollars.

17. archman - December 01, 2010 at 09:49 am

In order for educational quality to *actually* occur and maintain itself, a college must have strong faculty governance. That's the bottom line.

18. jumpmaster - December 01, 2010 at 12:44 pm

I have to concur with the advice not to use a broad brush and engage in a rush to judgment. I have taught at "public" and private for profit institutions. At one of the "for-profit" institutions I was told I "grade too hard" and eventually was allowed to "pursue other opportunities". In yet another for profit I would fail students and my Department Chair's response was "Good, I am sure they earned the F on basis of merit".

I find the for-profit student teaching challenge similar to the community college student demographic. Both institutions have open admissions and students often continue to appy k12 behaviors that brought them to an open admissions institution, public or private, in the first place. A committed educator can often break down walls of complacency. Sanctimonious, self absorbed "sages" blame the student and refuse to acknowledge that they are contributing to the learning malaise. Eighteen masters hours does not an educator make and too often PhD is an acronym for "piled high and deep".

19. gsawpenny - December 01, 2010 at 02:32 pm

To #17, softshellcrab,

Indeed, and to that long list we need to add every so-called "state college and state university" that fails to keep up with the intended purpose of training teachers. Really does Michigan, a state that can't even afford the cheap Chevy's partially built there, need a University of Michigan and a Michigan State University? What about Massachusetts or Illinois? Do we really need "Illinois State University - Nowhereville" or "Dying Post-Industrial City State College?"

Are we going to shut down all those terrible schools like Georgetown or John Hopkins? After all, they do their best to sock away loads of cash. Don't tell me that Harvard, with an endowment approaching a billion dollars is a "non-profit" school!

In short, put away your broad brush. Before too long I imagine that Kaplan et.al. will buy up the dying campus of most tax-starved state schools and turn them into profit machines by requiring their faculty to do what they were meant to do in the first place - teach those willing to learn.

20. willynilly - December 01, 2010 at 05:44 pm

To doctorthomas - Post #15

Get your mind out of New England and look South. Check out the founding story of the University of Virginia, the role of Thomas Jefferson in the founding, and the compelling arguements he made before a very early Congress (See dates) on the need and value of public higher education in order to secure the future of the Republic. It's time to clean your "Historic Lens". It has become somewhat foggy.

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