February 26, 2021

Biden Hires Another For-Profit College Lawyer


Biden Hires Another For-Profit College Lawyer

Joe Biden, who pledged to get tough on predatory for-profit colleges, has just hired another person for a high-level job — at least the third so far — who previously worked for terrible, abusive for-profit schools.

Alicia O’Brien, as the American Prospect reported today, has been named senior counsel and special assistant to the president in the White House counsel’s office. O’Brien comes from the big law firm King & Spalding, where, according to her bio (now removed) she helped “clients in a wide variety of industries navigate… high-stakes matters.” The bio trumpeted that “Alicia uses her extensive experience as a former senior official at DOJ” to help clients facing law enforcement investigations.

At the firm, O’Brien has advised big corporations including Google. King & Spalding has represented Amazon, Comcast, British American Tobacco, and General Electric, as well as Chevron in the controversial counter-attack on lawyer Steven Donziger, who won a $9.5 billion court judgment against the oil giant in Ecuador. The firm also has represented the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, even after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

And King & Spalding is deeply connected to Donald Trump: Republican lawyers at the firm were engaged to assist the Trump campaign over the 2020 election results; one of those lawyers, firm partner Bobby Burchfield, also served throughout the Trump administration as the Trump Organization’s ethics lawyer (bravo); and firm partner Rod Rosenstein I probably don’t need to tell you

Alicia O’Brien’s King & Spalding bio also boasted that, among other experience, she “[r]epresented several for-profit colleges in an investigation and hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, examining recruitment practices and federal investment in these schools.”

The 2010-2012 Senate HELP committee investigation was a landmark effort to understand the operations at for-profit colleges, and the committee, under then-chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA), issued an extensive, damning report, with detailed information on predatory practices at 30 school operations.

Among the schools investigated was Westwood College, which engaged in particularly cruel abuses against low-income people of color who were seeking to study criminal justice at a Chicago area campus — deceiving them, overcharging them, under-educating them, leaving them buried in debt and without the careers they sought. Westwood shut down after paying $15 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the Illinois attorney general.

According to former HELP committee staff members, Alicia O’Brien’s law firm at the time, Dickstein Shapiro, represented Westwood College in dealing with the HELP committee probe. The HELP staff with whom I spoke don’t remember meeting O’Brien, but they said the Dickstein team advising Westwood was headed by Mark Paoletta. Paoletta just spent the past four years working in the Trump White House, first as chief counsel to Vice President Pence and then as general counsel at the Office of Management and Budget; before working at Dickstein with O’Brien, he was in the George W. Bush White House.

The media outlet Daily Caller, which in that era was run by Tucker Carlson and seemed remarkably interested in defending the for-profit college industry, ran an article in 2011 attacking a former Westwood employee who blew the whistle on school abuses in testimony to the HELP committee. The article cited a letter provided by Paoletta. HELP staff said this Westwood attack on the witness was distorted and unfair. 

Among Westwood College’s many deceptions against students described in the Illinois AG complaint, here’s a sickening one:

In one recorded phone call with a prospective student, an admissions representative told the prospective student that only a very small portion of interested students will be recommended for admission, giving rise to cause for celebration among Westwood employees: “You know, I want you to know that on a day-to-day basis, we probably interview maybe 50 to 60 students. And out of those 50 to 60 students, we probably are able to, you know, on a good day recommend five to six. And you heard the celebration — you heard the celebration of everybody, you know, when we were able to recommend a student.” In reality, there is no required or formal recommendation process. According to a senior Alta Colleges, Inc., employee, each student determines whether he or she has met the admission requirements by showing proof of high school graduation or equivalency, and then either meeting the requirements of the placement test or submitting prior examination results.

Westwood’s parent company, Alta Colleges, owned in turn by the Boston private equity firm Housatonic Partners, was getting as much as $338 million a year from U.S. taxpayers.

In 2009, Alta agreed to pay the U.S. government $7 million to resolve allegations that the company’s schools in Texas submitted false claims for federal student grants and loans; the Justice Department alleged that Alta’s Texas colleges obtained its required state licenses by misrepresenting to the state that they complied with job placement reporting requirements and that their interior design programs complied with requirements for a professional license.

In 2012, Westwood paid $4.5 million to settle claims by Colorado’s attorney general that it had engaged in deceptive business practices — misleading prospective students, engaging in deceptive advertising, and failing to comply with Colorado’s consumer lending laws.

Dickstein Shapiro in the period O’Brien worked there represented other for-profit colleges, including two that, like Westwood, were among the very worst — ITT Tech, which shut down in 2016 under the weight of multiple law enforcement actions and revelations of predatory abuses; and Bridgepoint Education, also the subject of numerous law enforcement actions, including a pending lawsuit by the California attorney general’s office (which was previously run by Kamala Harris). Seeking to escape its awful reputation for deceptive practices, Bridgepoint changed its name to Zovio, tried to convert its school, Ashford University, to a non-profit, and, last summer, sold it to the University of Arizona. 

Dickstein Shapiro lobbied not only Congress but also state attorneys general on behalf of predatory Bridgepoint.

O’Brien left Dickstein and worked in the Justice Department during the second Obama term, rising to the position of associate deputy attorney general, under Sally Yates, now also a King & Spalding partner.

O’Brien has not responded to a LinkedIn message seeking comment, after my guesses at a White House email address for her led to bouncebacks. 

Candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris pledged to protect students and taxpayers against abusive and deceptive for-profit colleges. Seeking to hold them to their commitments, on December 1, 32 pro-student organizations, and I, sent a letter to the Biden transition calling on the new administration to refrain from hiring, anywhere in the administration, anyone who has been affiliated with, represented, or lobbied for any predatory colleges.

The appointment of Alicia O’Brien is, unfortunately, a rejection of our advice and request. So was the appointment to a key Justice Department position of Brian Boynton, who repeatedly represented the for-profit college trade association APSCU (now called CECU) as it tried to undermine Obama initiatives to curb predatory college behavior, and who since coming to the Department this year has joined forces with Betsy DeVos, seeking to prevent lawyers for students from deposing her. So also, was the appointment, as a top White House staffer, of Anita Dunn, a top Biden and Obama campaign aide who long advised predatory Kaplan University.

Biden higher education appointments at the Department of Education and the White House have been outstanding — a strong roster of talented people who are committed to quality education and to holding predatory schools accountable. But seeding other parts of the administration with people who worked for predatory schools puts at risk the effort to undo Trump-DeVos atrocities in this area and create lasting protections for students. 

In addition, the principle our letter proposed was meant as a sanction and a deterrent. Even if they have done many fine things over their lives and careers, people who were willing to take cash to represent schools that used taxpayer dollars to systematically ruin the lives of veterans, single mothers, and other striving low-income students should not be working in a Biden administration committed to social and economic justice. 

There are plenty of tough, talented lawyers available to help the administration who did not work for blatantly predatory companies.