July 14, 2021

California Lobbyist’s Dual Roles on Veteran’s Education Bill Raise Questions

California Lobbyist's Dual Roles on Veteran's Education Bill Raise Questions

A California lobbyist, at a state legislative hearing last week, identified himself as speaking on behalf of multiple California-based veterans organizations as he urged passage of a resolution that would benefit a group of 23 law schools in the state. The lobbyist, Seth Reeb, did not mention in his oral remarks that he also had been hired to lobby on the resolution by California Accredited Law Schools (CALS), an organization of those same law schools, which lack accreditation by the American Bar Association. 

Nor did Reeb inform the committee that more than 40 national veterans groups — including the national offices of some of the California groups he invoked — supported the federal law that the California resolution seeks to alter.

Nor, apparently, did Reeb’s firm initially inform its own veterans group clients, in pitching them to endorse the legislation, that the firm also represented the law schools, some of them for-profit, with a financial interest in the outcome. 

The proposed California state resolution would call on the U.S. Congress to rescind one piece of a federal law, the Protect the GI Bill Act, enacted late last year. That provision, as of August 1, will end GI Bill funding for veterans to attend law schools whose graduates cannot sit for the bar exam in all 50 states — part of a measure that halts GI Bill funds for various categories of schools that lack the proper accreditation to allow some or all graduates to get jobs in their chosen fields.

In passing the law, Congress was concerned that veterans are lured into expending their federal education aid, and their own money and time, on programs that don’t advance their careers because of this lack of  necessary programmatic accreditation. 

The Protect the GI Bill Act was part of a larger bill that passed both the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate unanimously in December 2020 and was signed into law by President Trump in January. 

Unlike other states, California allows graduates of law schools lacking ABA accreditation to sit for the bar exam and become practicing lawyers. California’s Committee of Bar Examiners separately accredits 23 non-ABA schools. Five of those are organized as for-profit businesses, the rest as non-profits. (California also permits another group of law schools, with no accreditation, to operate under separate rules.)

But while some students thrive at the non-ABA California law schools and build successful legal careers in the state, others who study at the schools, in person or online, end up without the careers they sought. Many drop out or flunk the bar exam, and some don’t seem to get sufficient warning that, even if they do graduate, they won’t be eligible to take the bar or practice law anywhere but in California. 

The Protect the GI Bill law upset California’s non-ABA-accredited law schools, who apparently saw their revenues threatened by the loss of GI Bill money they have received when veterans enroll. 

Their organization, CALS, hired lobbyist Seth Reeb of Reeb Government Relations, a firm long involved in state lobbying. 

But at the July 6 hearing of the California Senate Judiciary Committee to consider the resolution, Assembly Joint Resolution 12 (AJR-12), Reeb introduced himself without mentioning these law school clients. Instead, Reeb said, “I’m representing American Legion-Department of California, AMVETS-Department of California, California Association of County Veterans Service Officers, California State Commanders Veterans Council, Military Officers Association of America-California Council of Chapters, and the Vietnam Veterans of America — all in support of AJR-12.” He continued, “We feel veterans have been served properly by the California-accredited law schools…”

It is unclear whether Reeb or his firm colleagues told any of these veterans group clients, when soliciting their support for the resolution, that they also represent CALS.

An email sent to California veterans groups on April 29 from another member of Reeb’s firm, Dana Nichol, copied to Reeb, did not disclose that the firm represented the California law schools, if that was the case by then. The email asked the groups to support AJR-12, asserting the resolution merely would “ask Congress to fix a glitch in a recent federal law…. Since this was screwed up at the federal level, it must be fixed there.” Nor did the email disclose that 42 national veterans groups supported the federal law.

On May 18, Nichol sent a letter to California Assembly member Mark Stone (D), chair of the Assembly’s Judiciary Committee, and the sponsor of AJR-12, stating that the Reeb firm represented the six veterans groups and that those organizations supported the resolution.

But by mid-June, Reeb had taken at least one meeting alongside CALS officials with opponents of AJR-12, so the word was out that the firm also represented the law schools.

The Reeb firm’s dual, potentially conflicting roles — representing both groups advocating for student veterans and law schools — apparently did lead to concerns, because a few days ahead of the Judiciary Committee hearing, late on the Friday night before the 4th of July, Reeb sent an email to his veterans group clients defending himself.

In a message with the subject line “AJR 12 Misinformation has been circulating!” Reeb acknowledged, “We now represent CALS,” the association of California non-ABA schools; that suggested that he had not informed at least some of the client organizations before that night. He didn’t explain what he meant by “now,” i.e., when the firm started representing the law schools. Reeb also insisted he “would never ask our clients to support legislation that would negatively affect veterans.” (Also, contrary to what his words implied at the Senate hearing, Reeb’s firm does not represent the national Vietnam Veterans of America; his firm represents the California VVA chapter only.)

Reeb, an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran, added in the email, “We have been dedicated to supporting Veteran organizations for several years. I would ask that you continue to trust us as we only have the very best intentions for California veterans in mind.”

Yet, despite this assertion of his trustworthiness, when Reeb appeared a few days later before the Senate committee, his statement made no mention of CALS as his client. Members of the public listening to the hearing, whose audio was available on the Internet, might well have thought Reeb was appearing there solely on behalf of veterans.

Reeb provided me today with what appears to be a letter, dated July 5 (the day before the Senate hearing), signed by him and addressed to the Senate Judiciary Committee members. In the letter, Reeb states that he represents CALS in support of AJR-12. Reeb didn’t expressly tell me he actually sent the letter, but I will assume he did.

Still, any assembled legislators who failed to receive or read Reeb’s letter might have thought, listening to him, that he was representing only the veterans groups.

Reeb also did not mention at the hearing that at least 42 national veterans organizations, including the national American Legion, AMVETS, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Iraq Afghanistan Veterans of America, and Student Veterans of America, supported the Protect the GI Bill law, which included the ban on federal veterans education dollars going to law schools whose graduates cannot be licensed in every state — or that nearly 20 veterans organizations specifically opposed the new California resolution. 

It’s concerning that Seth Reeb promotes himself to the public and to veterans organizations as “the lobbyist for veterans and military groups at the State Capitol” while more quietly representing, on veterans issues, institutions whose interests may not always align with those of veterans.  

Asked to respond, Reeb spoke with me by phone and defended his actions. He provided me with some relevant documents, including the July 5 letter addressed to the legislators, but he declined to comment for the record, or to tell me when he first told his veterans group clients, or the legislators, that CALS had hired him.

The dominant figure in the law school lobbying group, CALS, is Mitchel Winick, the president and dean of a California non-profit law school system made up of Monterey College of Law, San Luis Obispo College of Law, and Kern County College of Law. Winick, who also addressed last week’s Senate hearing, knows Assembly member Stone (D), the Judiciary Committee chair and the sponsor of AJR-12. According to a message posted online by Winick, Stone “agreed” to sponsor the resolution, which Winick sought. Stone, whose district includes one of Winick’s law schools, presented it to the senators at the hearing.

Echoing the Reeb firm’s claim that the federal law was just a mistake, Stone told the senators that Congress “did not realize … that California has a very high standard of California-accredited law schools.” He insisted that the California non-ABA schools “are not the diploma mills, these are not these for-profit organization that take people’s money, provide a substandard education, and then they can’t pass the bar, they can’t practice.”

But after Reeb spoke, Will Hubbard of the organization Veterans’ Education Success (VES) addressed the committee, offering evidence that some of the non-ABA California law schools do have poor performance records. Among the evidence presented by Hubbard, a Marine and Afghan war veteran:

  • According to the California Bar, one of the California-accredited law schools, the University of West Los Angeles, has a reported bar passage rate of 9 percent.
  • Over a quarter of the non-ABA schools have been placed on probation through July 2022 by their other accreditors due to a noncompliant minimum passage rate — or have lost accreditation entirely. 
  • None of these California-accredited law schools meet the minimum ABA bar passage rate of 75 percent; only one school was above 70 percent.

It’s also the case that credits earned at California’s non-ABA law schools generally will not transfer to law schools in other states — a real problem for veterans, military service members, and their family members who often find themselves required by work obligations to move. 

Predatory law schools — including some that the ABA has accredited, like the demised Charlotte School of Law, and the non-ABA, California-accredited Concord School of Law, run by Kaplan and now part of Purdue University — can crush the dreams of many enrollees by promising them careers in law, but then fail to provide strong enough programs to allow them to graduate, pass the bar, or obtain good legal jobs — and burden them with heavy student loan debt for decades. 

After Hubbard spoke at the hearing, Senator Andreas Borgeas (R), vice chair of the Judiciary Committee, attacked his testimony as misleading, and then Reeb spoke again to do the same. When Hubbard sought to rebut them, he was ignored and cut off, and the committee moved to a vote: 11-0 in favor of the resolution. The California legislature’s other house, the State Assembly, also supported the resolution by unanimous votes in committee and on the floor.

The vote in favor may have been an easy one for California legislators: showing support for California institutions with a resolution that has no teeth; it just calls on Congress to pass a new law that Congress, especially given the strong national veterans organization support for the current law, is unlikely to embrace.

But some veterans groups questioned the appropriateness of Reeb presenting himself as the representative of veterans groups without mentioning, at least in his oral testimony, that he had been hired by the law school association — and without acknowledging that many national veterans groups support the federal law.

“I think it’s troubling that Reeb would present himself as representing veterans organizations, when the record demonstrates that leading national veterans organizations oppose the measure,” says Will Hubbard of VES. 

U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano (D), who represents California’s 41st District, wrote to California legislators in June regarding AJR-12. He made clear that the new federal provision affecting California law schools was no glitch. Takano wrote that the Protect the GI Bill Act “underwent two years of Congressional hearings and analysis, with extremely careful drafting by federal experts in the GI Bill and was enacted with the unanimous and vigorous support of the nation’s largest veterans and military service organizations and the technical assistance of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.” Takano defended the existing federal law as valuable in ensuring that veterans who graduate from law school can sit for the bar exam in any state.

A congressional staff member was even more specific, highlighting for me that congressional committees had drafted the provision affecting California law schools and shared it with the California State Approving Agency for Veterans Education (CSAAVE), the state agency that evaluates school’s suitability for veterans using GI Bill funds, in 2019; the committees also shared the language with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the national veterans groups in that time period. The bill was introduced in October 2019.

According to the staff member, the provision “definitely wasn’t rushed, it definitely was intentional. We were looking at these California law schools because of their passage rate problems” and because at least some of the schools “don’t have the faculty and facility to give these students a proper education.”

Nothing in the new federal law prevents these California law schools from continuing to operate, and indeed some of them have general accreditation recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, meaning students, including veterans, for better or for worse, can attend using federal Pell grants and direct loans administered by that department. Nothing in the new federal law prohibits these California law schools from offering scholarships to veterans. If the California legislature wants to provide additional funding to support these law schools in enrolling more veterans or other students, it has that option. But the U.S. Congress decided that the best way to protect veterans was to bar the use of GI Bill funds for these schools, and, whatever Seth Reeb told the California legislature, numerous national veterans groups agreed.