July 28, 2020

House Committee: DeVos Aide Diane Jones Repeatedly Misled Congress

House Committee: DeVos Aide Diane Jones Repeatedly Misled Congress

A report that the House Education and Labor Committee released this afternoon provides fresh evidence to support what has been clear for a long time: Betsy DeVos’s top higher education aide, Acting Deputy Under Secretary of Education Diane Auer Jones, has repeatedly made false statements to Congress regarding her role in the debacle over Dream Center Education Holdings (DCEH).

When DCEH, a newly-formed subsidiary of a non-profit charity group, acquired several chains of schools from the collapsing, disgraced for-profit college operation EDMC, the accreditor of two of the school campuses, Higher Learning Commission, conditioned the sale on DCEH accepting, and telling students, that the campuses would be unaccredited, at least initially. DCEH accepted the terms, but then falsely informed students that the campuses “remain accredited” (as Republic Report was the first to expose).

Then, as subsequent evidence showed, Jones and DCEH worked behind the scenes to try to render the campuses — the Illinois and Colorado Art Institutes — retroactively accredited, and thus eligible that for the millions in federal taxpayer aid that the Department was illegally sending the schools.

The new report documents repeated falsehoods by Jones and the Department of Education, some based on newly-obtained evidence:

— Jones, a former senior executive at another large predatory for-profit college chain, testified to the House Oversight Committee last year that she “[did not] remember texting” with DCEH officials. Records show that Jones routinely texted with multiple DCEH officials, more than 100 texts. We reported in May 2019, from a DCEH source, that Diane Jones refused to communicate with DCEH leadership by email; she wanted texts or phone calls only. Department of Education policy “prohibit[s] all employees from using personal email or messaging applications to conduct Dept business.” 

— Jones testified to House Oversight that a new guidance she issued, reversing Department policy and allowing retroactive accreditation, “had nothing to do with Dream Center.” However, at a minimum, the Department told DCEH of the guidance before it was released, and it facilitated Jones’ retroactive accreditation proposal to HLC. Also, as we reported at the time, on July 11, 2018, DCEH’s chief operating officer told faculty and staff of the Illinois Art Institute that Jones was directly involved in trying to fix the HLC accreditation matter and that the Department “went so far as to change a regulation at DoE to make it easy for HLC to help us.”  I testified at the same House Oversight hearing where Diane Jones testified under oath that her revised 2018 guidance “had nothing to do with Dream Center.” It was obviously a lie then, and the House report confirms that.

— The report also completely undermines the Department’s May 2019 claim, in response to a written question from Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL),  that Jones first learned of the HLC-DCEH matter on July 10, 2018. The record shows she had been heavily engaged on the issue, which had already spilled into public discussion, well before that date.

— The report also notes that the Department has refused to cooperate with its investigation. While the Committee obtained some of Jones’ text messages, context indicates others have not been released. Jones appears to respond to a message stating “Merry Christmas to you, too!” to Dream Center’s counsel, but no other messages were provided from that week, such as the one where counsel would have initiated the Christmas greeting. 

HLC president Barbara Gellman-Danley told committee investigators that Jones’ personal engagement on this issue was unusual; HLC later asserted, according to the report, that the Department “was and is attempting to commandeer HLC’s accrediting process by ‘strong-arming’ HLC into retroactive accreditation, in violation of law.”

The House report also adds what I believe is a new detail in this saga: After site visits at the two unaccredited DCEH campuses, HLC staff told Jones they would recommend reinstatement of accreditation for one school, but revocation of even probationary “candidate” status for the other “due to persistent non-compliance with HLC policies.”

These matters will surely be addressed tomorrow, when DeVos’s outside advisory committee, NACIQI, holds a meeting to consider the Department’s bizarre and vindictive proposal that HLC, not DCEH or Department officials, be disciplined over this controversy.  I’m one of the members of the public slated to testify.

The House committee report concludes that the Department’s and Jones’s “false and misleading statements to Congress have distorted the Congressional and public record.”

The report also notes that Jones’ relentless push to back-date the DCEH campus accreditations would have real-world consequences that, as with almost everything Jones and DeVos do, hurt students and help predatory college operators. Retroactive accreditation of these DCEH schools, as DeVos and Jones have sought, would, the committee says, “insulate investors in a fraudulent for-profit college from liability, while transferring that liability to the students it defrauded.”

In a press release, committee chair Bobby Scott (D-VA), said, “Rather than cutting off their access to taxpayer money – as the law requires – the documents reveal that the Department continued to send these schools millions of dollars in federal financial aid, while also working behind the scenes to attempt to secure ‘retroactive accreditation’ for these schools, a process that would change history to erase Dream Center’s misrepresentations to students. 

In a normal administration, not run by Donald J. Trump, where her brand of duplicity and abuses weren’t the norm, Diane Jones would have already been fired for blatant misconduct in office. She should resign today.