May 20, 2020

Florida Career College Works to Silence Former Employees

Just days after Republic Report published an article, based on interviews with former employees of Florida Career College, about abuses at the school, the college’s parent company wrote to ex-staffers warning them to keep quiet, or else possibly be sued. 

In letters to former employees, attached to emails sent last week, Aaron Mortensen, general counsel of International Education Corporation, FCC’s parent company, offers “a friendly reminder” that the workers signed a severance and confidentiality agreement with the school under which they “are responsible … for not criticizing, denigrating or otherwise disparaging or causing disparagement to FCC.” Then Mortensen warns, “In the event you fail to meet these obligations, FCC reserves the right to pursue various legal remedies against you….”

I’ve obtained copies of these letters that FCC sent to two different employees, and I’ve spoken with other employees who received them.  

The IEC letters follow a May 6 Republic Report article, which reported that recruiters for the Orlando campus of FCC tricked prospective students into campus visits by claiming they were offering job interviews, and lured homeless people into enrolling by offering hot dogs in strip mall parking lots. We reported that FCC admitted students whose physical and intellectual disabilities prevented them from doing the jobs they trained for, students whose convictions for violent crimes made them ineligible for positions they sought, and students who didn’t speak English, even though the programs were only in English. We also reported that FCC cheated on entrance exams so it could admit high school dropouts.

These kinds of shady practices, while extremely troubling, are echoed at some other for-profit colleges across the country, and unfortunately may accelerate, because Trump education secretary Betsy DeVos has stocked her office with former for-profit college executives and trashed protections for students and taxpayers — and now the COVID-19 pandemic risks pushing more desperate Americans to fall for higher education scams.

But as bad as practices are across the for-profit college industry, FCC-Orlando seems, based on former employee accounts, to aggregate many of the industry’s worst abuses under one small roof. 

Our previous report on FCC was based on information from four Orlando campus ex-employees, all of whom asked to remain unnamed out of concern for their careers, plus numerous internal FCC documents that we obtained.

I noted at the end of the article that other former FCC employees, critical of the school, had contacted me, and that I planned to speak with them soon. 

Gary Puckett, executive director of the Council on Occupational Education, FCC”s accrediting agency, told me last week, “We are investigating the matter.”

In addition, last month former FCC students sued the school, alleging that FCC, which has 10 campuses across Florida, and an eleventh in Houston, systematically targeted African-American students with deceptive advertising and high-pressure sales pitches, and left those students with overwhelming student loan debt. The complaint in the case included internal details about FCC practices and operations. 

Based on Mortensen’s letter warning former staff, it appears that FCC didn’t like where things were going.

Since my article, I have spoken with three more people who previously worked at the Orlando campus, and accounts from two of them are below in this article. Still more former employees have reached out to me, wanting to talk. I may well publish more based on these employee accounts. 

Nondisclosure agreements are used in numerous industries, including among for-profit colleges. But FCC’s “friendly” but threatening reminder to ex-employees of their agreements, coming soon after damaging revelations of violations at the company, are notable. 

One of the former employees shared with me a copy of one of these gag agreements, which that employee refused to sign. Under its terms, a former employee had to commit to FCC that they would not disparage the school, would not sue the school, and would not “take any action whatsoever to cause, assist or influence, or which reasonably could be anticipated to cause, assist or influence, any person or entity to consider, initiate or prosecute litigation, assert any other kind of claim or take any other kind of adverse action against” the school.

The employee also had to agree not to disclose to others that the nondisclosure agreement itself even existed. 

But the agreement also contains language — common in these agreements to ensure they comply with the law — stating that nothing in the agreement restrains the employee from reporting possible violations of the law to government agencies or to make disclosures protected by whistleblower laws. The new letter from IEC’s top lawyer to former employees doesn’t mention those exceptions.

In addition, several of the former FCC Orlando employees described to me aggressive and coercive efforts by IEC/FCC executives to convince departing employees to sign these gag agreements.

Kenneth Lundy, one of the former employees with whom I have spoken since I published my last article, worked at the FCC Orlando campus for only a few months — October 2019 to January of this year. A U.S. Navy veteran who had previously worked at the for-profit schools DeVry and Kaplan/Purdue Global, Lundy was hired at FCC as regional director of education partnerships, with special responsibility for outreach to military service members and veterans.

But there was a problem: In 2018, the Florida state veterans agency had ended its approval of FCC for eligibility to enroll veterans using federal G.I. Bill dollars. The manager who recruited Lundy, however, assured him that the suspension was only because of FCC’s failure to keep statistics and provide paperwork, and that FCC had applied for reinstatement, and expected to get it. But that never happened during Lundy’s tenure. 

In his short time at FCC, Lundy says, he noted that the school marketed to low-income students of color, and heard recruiters engage in “embellishment” when talking with prospective students over the phone or in person — promising them they would be eligible for jobs they were unlikely to get, even sometimes when the FCC programs they were pitching lacked the needed certifications. When Lundy asked about the recruiting deceptions, the admissions director told him, that’s how it works here. Lundy concluded that the FCC Orlando admissions operation was about money, not students.

Lundy says many of the FCC Orlando students were homeless, or wearing monitoring bracelets indicating they had pending criminal cases. He says there were fights between students in the halls on almost a daily basis.

Lundy reports he was terminated via a phone call from the supervisor who had hired him, who said the reason was “performance,” without any specifics. Lundy had never seen his supervisor, who was based in California, in person.

The IEC officials told Lundy they would provide a $1800 severance payment — but only if he signed the non-disclosure agreement. He declined. 

Another employee who spoke with me says she gave two weeks notice that she was resigning. IEC managers told her she could get paid about $2400 for those days if she signed the gag agreement. Or, if she refused, she would get nothing and leave right away. She also refused to sign. 

As we previously reported, former FCC Orlando employees say that when managers were considering firing staff members, company lawyers would quiz them on what derogatory information about the school the employee might know.

IEC has not yet answered the lawsuit filed against it by former FCC students, but a lawyer has entered the case to represent the company. He is Christopher Oprison, a former White House counsel for George W. Bush, and now a partner in the Miami office of the giant multinational law firm DLA Piper.