For-Profit College CEO Said CFPB’s Chopra Should Be Abused At Guantanamo
On October 2, 2015, Kevin Modany, the CEO of ITT Educational Services, Inc., then one of the biggest for-profit college operations in the United States, sent an email to company lawyers about Rohit Chopra, an assistant director at the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “This guy,” Modany wrote, “should be sent to Guantanamo Bay for about a decade of R&R; which should include an aggressive regimen of ‘water sports’!”
In the email, quoted in a report released today, Modany told his legal team that Chopra’s “purposeful manipulation of the facts, abuse of power and attempt to defraud the Treasury out of taxpayer funds should be viewed as economic terrorist activity and he should be treated accordingly!”
In reality, Chopra, 33 years old at the time and a graduate of Harvard and of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, is not a terrorist or a fraud artist. He is a dedicated, skilled, knowledgeable, and incorruptible American public servant.
Chopra also was someone who believed that Modany’s company was fleecing students and taxpayers. And Chopra was doing something aimed at righting those wrongs.
Chopra directed the CFPB’s efforts to address abuses in the high-interest private student loan market. In February 2014, the CFBP had sued ITT, charging that the company’s ITT Technical Institute “subjected consumers to undue influence or coerced them into taking out ITT Private Loans through a variety of unfair acts and practices designed to interfere with the consumers’ ability to make informed, uncoerced choices.”
ITT, after its 2016 demise, resolved claims with the CFPB and with 48 state attorneys general over the private loans, in settlements worth $390 million. With those and other legal proceedings, including ITT’s bankruptcy case, dragging on in recent years, Modany has assumed a lower profile than what he cultivated when he flaunted Miami Vice-like facial hair in close-ups in ITT Tech television commercials.
Meanwhile, Chopra has been building a remarkable career of service and results. He was special advisor to U.S. Secretary of Education John King at the end of the Obama administration, as the education department finally took decisive steps against predatory colleges, including removing ITT Tech from federal aid. During the Trump administration, Chopra was one of the five members of the Federal Trade Commission, where he pushed innovative actions to curb consumer scams and anti-competitive conduct. He is now back at the CFPB serving as director — the agency’s top official — and advancing efforts to protect Americans from banking abuses and financial fraud, as well as student loan ripoffs.
The for-profit college industry has regularly claimed to be the champion of the millions of people of color its schools enroll. But the new report reveals that while industry leader Modany, in messages to subordinates, hurled angry insults at numerous critics and perceived foes, he apparently singled out the Indian-American Chopra for proposed punishment as a terrorist.
Who is Kevin Modany?
Kevin Modany’s ITT Tech, based in Carmel, Indiana, offered degrees in fields including information technology, health care, business, and criminal justice. At its peak, the school received $1.1 billion annually from taxpayer-funded student grants and loans. It had some 130 campuses, spread across 38 states, plus online programs, with about 40,000 students. ITT was accredited by ACICS, a body that was in turn, at the time, approved by the U.S. Department of Education as a gatekeeper for federal student aid.
In other words, in the eyes of the federal government, Kevin Modany was an educator.
But, as the devastating new 209-page report, from Harvard Law School’s Project on Predatory Student Lending, reaffirms, Modany was no educator. Instead, the report, based on internal documents from ITT and sworn testimonials from former students, suggests that Modany was an angry, vindictive man, contemptuous not only of ITT’s “socialist” and “terrorist” critics, but also of his school’s own employees and students.
In his apparently relentless pursuit of maximizing corporate profits and his own compensation, Modany engineered the ruin of the financial futures of a generation of Americans — veterans, single mothers, people of color, and others — who were lured into endless, hopeless debt by ITT’s deceptions and rarely got the career advancement they sought.
In September 2016, ITT Tech suddenly shut down all of its under the weight of multiple federal and state law enforcement investigations and lawsuits from the CFPB and also the Department of Justice, Securities and Exchange Commission, and numerous state attorneys general, and after the U.S. Department of Education had imposed stringent conditions on continued operations and then finally cut off student financial aid. The company also promptly declared bankruptcy.
Remarkably, as soon as it ceased operation, ITT’s website homepage reduced to a self-pitying notice that it would no longer be enrolling new applicants. There was no information, on what was supposed to be a college website, of ITT’s 35,000 or so currently enrolled students. At that moment, ITT Tech confessed its essential nature: not a school but a predatory call center disguised as a school. (The day after I pointed out this naked confession, the company modified its site.)
What does the new report reveal about Modany and ITT?
The extensive new report on ITT Tech and Modany comes from the Harvard PPSL project, a litigation clinic that, among other work, represents an estimated 700,000 former ITT students in a class action connected to ITT’s ongoing bankruptcy case. In late 2018, the students reached a settlement with ITT’s estate that canceled more than $500 million of debt they owed directly to the company, returned about $3 million back to students, and gave the students a $1.5 billion claim against ITT’s estate.
A former ITT instructor is quoted in the report saying, “I met Kevin Modany once . . . and all he spoke about was money – not education.” And that insight sets the stage for the report’s blockbuster revelations from inside the company, as well as from ex-students. Among them:
- ITT recruiters regularly lied to prospective students, for example flatly telling them that credits earned at ITT would transfer to other schools, when that was often not the case; or telling them that the school’s affiliation with ACICS, a “national” accreditor was more desirable than affiliation with a “regional” accreditor, when in fact the opposite was true.
- ITT recruiters also misrepresented the kinds of jobs ITT graduates could expect to obtain, falsely suggesting that the school’s graduates were regularly hired by specific companies; and told many students they would earn a six-figure salary after leaving the school.
- Internal emails show that despite ITT claims that by 2008 the company stopped using the troubling “pain funnel” recruiting technique — which exploited the hardships and shame of prospective students to get them to sign up — the practice continued until at least 2012, and higher-ups knew.
- ITT “engaged in classic bait-and-switch marketing by relying on nationwide advertising of certain programs that were not available in many locations. It also advertised programs that were not yet available at all, backed merely by promises of future availability.”
- “ITT’s rule was to never actually tell a prospective student the true, full cost of attendance. Instead, the company directed enrollment recruiters and financial aid coordinators to give this information piecemeal, answer evasively, and avoid stating the actual, total cost.”
- ITT recruiters “would rush through enrollment and sign documents without students’ knowledge or consent:”
- ITT regularly enrolled students who couldn’t read or understand English, the school’s sole language of instruction.
- ITT supervisors regularly threatened recruiters with termination if they did not enroll enough students or engage in aggressive tactics. Modany “emphasized the need to not give prospective students a chance to think over their decision. After he learned that one campus was allowing students to break up appointments over two days, he directed, ‘Please be sure to advise [campus director] that our policies do not authorize “be back” activity!’ He also asked for a test of a program to ‘insert a reassuring ITT Tech story into the Facebook News Feed’ of students who signed up in ‘an effort to overcome buyers’ remorse.'”
- ITT shut down employees who questioned whether a prospective or re-enrolled student could benefit from the school’s program, saying it “was not the recruitment representative’s role to judge what would be best for the student.”
- ITT staff forged student financial aid documents; “if a student did not come in for an appointment with financial aid, it was common for financial aid staff to fill out the forms and e-sign on behalf of the student.”
- Modany directed that company officials avoid “sales” terms in public communications. One employee explained: “We have to modify our language again. We can’t dream of saying ‘sales,’ we must reference ‘students’ not ‘starts,’ and we can’t say ‘neutralizing objections or obstacles.’ We must say, ‘addressing issues.’”
- ITT kept money that was earmarked for veterans’ living expenses.
- ITT falsified its job placement rates, as well as student grades and attendance records.
Not only were ITT’s recruitment and financial aid operations dishonest, but also its instruction was often abysmal:
- ITT failed to provide teachers and students with adequate facilities and equipment. A Rancho Cordova, California, campus student reported, “ITT-Tech claimed to offer an education that would result in IT jobs, and my goal was to become a Network Admin. . . . In reality the computers were very old and many were broken, the only lab equipment I saw was from the teachers’ personal collections or workplaces.” A Tampa student said, “Our assignments came straight from tutorials found on [G]oogle & YouTube which didn’t correspond to the software versions that we did have.”
- Accreditor ACICS found equipment problems at the ITT Little Rock, Arkansas, campus: “Faculty stated that students in some of these courses have to reboot servers occasionally, sometimes three to five times over a class period. Depending on the computers and the size of class the process can take as long as 10-20 minutes. Under these conditions in a worst case scenario a student could spend 100 minutes of class time rebooting computers…. All faculty members interviewed described examples of non-functioning labs.”
- Internal communications revealed many examples of ITT headquarters’ indifference to inadequate faculty credentials.
- Frequently looking to cut spending on instruction, Modany in December 2012 demanded that the ratio of classes taught by lower-paid adjunct teachers to those run by full-time faculty be three to one.
- When told of that a needed “curriculum revision” for ITT”s nursing program would cost $120 per student, Modany responded, “I hope I’m reading this incorrectly! Otherwise they are too high . . . by about 10X!”
- “In September 2014, ITT realized that it needed to procure laptops for students because it was the only way to deliver content for curriculum that it had designed. ITT had already abandoned the version of the ebook model for which the content was designed, but was still offering the courses to enrolled students nonetheless. Modany was furious at the expenditure and resentful of the need to spend money on students:
‘THIS MUST BE ADDRESSED AS WE CANNOT CONTINUE TO THROW AWAY SHAREHOLDER RESOURCES DUE TO OUR INCOMPETENCE! Hopefully you all understand how strongly I feel about this! While you may not be…..I’m embarrassed with how we are managing this and it is my own personal failure that we’ve gotten to this point (that we simply cannot manage our resources and are allowing our students to steal our assets while we sit idly by and all we want to do is…….ORDER MORE ASSETS with our shareholders resources)! Absolutely unacceptable….no other way to describe this!’
This attitude—that paying for legitimate student needs was an attempt to “steal” assets that rightfully belonged to shareholders—prevailed throughout the company.”
The internal documents make clear that as determined as Modany was to cut instructional spending, he seemed equally committed to big spending on marketing and advertising to push ITT’s programs to new students. Modany said of ITT’s efforts to obtain quality “leads” (prospective students) and improve “conversion rates” (enrolled students), “I do not have anything more important on my agenda at this point! I cannot emphasize the importance of these efforts!!! . . . [W]e spend close to $200 million on this and I’m sure you can now understand that this is my personal top priority for 2014.”
The ITT files also reveal, again and again, Kevin Modany expressing outrage that anyone — government officials, policy advocates, faculty, staff, students, and members of ITT’s board of directors — would want to do anything about ITT’s misbehavior. Instead of investigating and addressing internal claims of abuses, ITT management repeatedly punished the whistleblowers:
- ITT maintained an ethics hotline, for employees to report abuses. But ex-employees said the hotline instead was “as a tool for identifying discontented employees in need of discipline or termination. One long-time financial aid staffer said that ’employees who called this hotline were disciplined while those against whom fraud was reported were not. I recall a particular instance in my time at Murray [Utah] when a new recruitment representative called the hotline to report wrongful behavior by a long-term veterans recruitment representative. The new representative was fired within weeks, and nothing happened to the long-term representative. Everybody . . . understood this to mean that calling the hotline meant effectively forfeiting one’s job at ITT.'”
- A former ITT academic dean who called the hotline to allege unethical business practices said, “[n]one of my complaints was investigated or taken seriously by anyone inside or outside of the campus.” The employee was “advised that I was not an attorney and was not qualified to claim that any laws or policies had been violated,” and was told to “abandon my complaints.” When he did not, he was fired.
- A representative who complained about abusive enrollment tactics was described by her superior as a “cancer [who] needs to be removed.”
- In February 2016, a long-time instructor at ITT’s Kansas City, Missouri campus emailed Modany and others, writing: “Many Bachelor students are having to take their CAPSTONE class online in 6 WEEKS!! A CAPSTONE CLASS!! This is supposed to show what they have learned the entire time they’ve been here. If you’re going to be turning this into an online school, you need to make sure the students know this!! This is NOT the type of students we have!” The instructor’s complaint was forwarded to human resources, which investigated not the issue, but the instructor who raised it.
- “Modany advised his business development employees to go around the legal department when certain issues—including possible payment of incentives to recruiters—were ‘a little too “outside the box”‘ for legal. He gave the same advice regarding ITT’s internal regulatory affairs department: ‘[S]ometimes you have to just call out and question the feedback we get from regulatory as it relates to development opportunities as it is just in their DNA to “choke the baby” (often times unnecessarily so)! They are paid to avoid risks at times at the expense of our growth!”‘”
- “When the national director of career services assumed her role at HQ, she spent time auditing campus-level job placement rates and checking files to verify placements. This was apparently something that ITT’s internal audit department did not do. Modany told her to do ‘less policing & more producing.'”
- Modany and other ITT executives hid information from the Board of Directors’ audit committee “and generally treated it as an annoyance. When a campus director of finance was found to be stealing student payments, the CFO rejected the suggestion that the incident be reported to the audit committee.”
- “Modany appears to have personally cajoled and bullied members of the audit committee against asking too many questions: ‘Talked to [head of audit committee] before the meeting and he is all set on his request (he basically backed off on all of it).'”
When an ITT nursing department chair, backed by other instructors, raised concerns about the program and sought more resources and compensation, Modany revealed how we felt about ITT’s teachers: “Typical terrorist tactics of an irrational faculty. They attempt to get students to rally against the school. We’ve seen this before. We let her grab the gun and take the hostages so now this likely gets a little messier than it otherwise would have been.” He declared, “We will not give this woman a DIME. Not one red cent! Litigate it to the end before we give her one nickel. And when the smoke clears if we can sue her for recovery of all associated legal costs I want to do that (and anything else we can think of.)”
And Modany and ITT relentlessly attacked and sought means to discredit the reporters, public policy advocates, and government officials, like Chopra, who dared question its operations:
- For example, after reading a letter from the non-profit group The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS) to the Department of Education seeking greater accountability for for-profit college abuses, Modany wrote to his lawyers, “Can we sue [TICAS vice president] Pauline Abernathy and TICAS  for these slanderous comments about preparing for our closure. This is outrageous commentary solely intended to harm our business. I’m tired of these assholes from TICAS taking unresponded shots at us and the sector at will!” In response to another TICAS letter, Modany wrote, “It’s time to take these socialists head on instead of hiding in the sand when they come storming down the beach with their ideological populist mantras masked by an insincere interest in protecting tax-payer money!” (Disclosure: I have received funding from TICAS for my higher education work. I also was once a consultant to the Harvard project that published the new report.)
- Modany attacked community colleges and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs): “If we want to protect tax-payer money we’ll stop subsidizing community colleges that take in billions of state and federal dollars and produce graduation rates in the high single to low double digit rates with unknown employment rates and starting salaries (as they don’t even collect this data)! While we are at it. . . let’s hold the HBCU’s accountable for their absolutely dismal performances . . .”
- After Holly Petraeus, who worked on veterans issues at the CFPB, commented on ITT and other for-profit colleges, Kevin Modany wrote: “The fact that someone would place any credibility on any of these claims per her ‘observations’ as ‘she traveled around the country’ is mind blowing and embarrassing to me as a citizen of the country governed by the people listening to her! Wow!! What a circus!!!”
- Faced with questions from a reporter about a student’s claim that an ITT employee forged his loans, Modany declared, “Take off the gloves with the student and slug back! Do not hold back in any way and anything that we can put out there to question the legitimacy of his complaint we should most definitely do so. . . . [W]e need to call him out publicly.” As to the reporter, educator Modany wrote, “This guy is a little scumbag and we need to call him out!”
- When an ex-student publicly urged current students not to stay at ITT, Kevin Modany declared him part of a “union/liberal front group” and asked that a cease and desist letter be sent to “bring him to his senses.” If that failed, Modany asked, “what possible legal action we could take. We need to snuff this kind of nonsense out. Right now, their precious little millennial egos are getting attention by their telling lies (and probably getting paid by the union). It is not costing them anything. That needs to change.”
Modany got really incensed when the Department of Education sought in 2016 to require that colleges receiving federal aid stop forcing students to surrender their rights to sue schools over deceptive practices and other abuses. Forcing students into closed-door “mandatory arbitration” instead of going to court was a practice of ITT and many other for-profit colleges, but almost no public and non-profit schools required it. Modany emailed staff: “Am I reading this incorrectly??!?!?!? How can that be enforceable? This is outrageous!” Modany admitted why we was so upset: “We would be subject to class action lawsuits!” Characterizing the reform as a political favor from the Obama administration to plaintiffs lawyers, Modany saw it as an existential emergency: “Assuming this doesn’t get derailed, there’s not more sunrises on the other side of July 1, 2017. Absent a legal challenge on this . . . the die has been cast!” When Modany found out that another big for-profit chain, DeVry, seeking to reform itself amid a regulatory crackdown, had announced it would no longer force students into arbitration, he wrote staff, “I don’t know how they could have concluded the expense is manageable.”
The Obama administration was pursuing the arbitration ban as part of a larger “borrower defense” rule aimed at fleshing out a federal law giving students the chance to have their federal loans cancelled if they could show they were deceived by their schools. Modany characterized efforts to have ITT loan debt erased that way as “grandstanding . . . by the socialist liberal left and their political ‘think tank’ groups that masquerade as ‘student advocates.’”
Modany was also angered by the Obama administration’s gainful employment rule, which the Department of Education proposed in 2010. The regulation penalized schools whose graduates did not earn enough to pay down their student loan debt. Modany called it “an absolute nightmare of epic proportions. . . . Well done by the Socialists on Pennsylvania Avenue . . . but a very sad day for our economy and global competitiveness.” It was clear, again, why Modany was so agitated: He told ITT’s Board of Directors that “[t]he overwhelming majority of our programs do NOT comply with the proposed [regulation] and require remediation initiatives.”
Modany’s regular attacks on “socialists” are particularly ridiculous given that his company was receiving nearly all of its revenue from the federal government.
ITT devised a plan to evade the gainful employment rule: repackage existing programs as brand-new ones, so the failing grades of the “old” programs wouldn’t be tabulated. The plan worked. When the education department finally evaluated gainful employment data, 80 percent of ITT’s students were in the newer programs not subject to that cycle of review. An ITT manager gleefully offered a confession: “It’s nice when our plans work out.”
(Trump education secretary Betsy DeVos gutted both the gainful employment rule and the borrower defense rule; the Biden administration is now in the process of reviving such measures.)
And Modany hit the exclamation and question mark keys hard again when a student debt project sought a contribution from his company:
Why is it someone else’s fault that people borrowed money and enjoyed the benefits of the use of that money and now have to pay it back???? Why is it in this country that very thing bad [sic] that happens to someone is the fault of someone else? When is it our own fault for the bad things that happen to us? When are we going to start saying that it is okay to hold people accountable for their own actions?? How has society become so enamored with the idea that rich people make bad things happen to people who have zero responsibility? How far away are we from refusing to put people in jail for committing crimes and instead starting to prosecute (civilly and criminally) responsible, law abiding citizens (parents, teachers, coaches, bosses, etc.) who had contact with these criminals at some point in the degenerates [sic] life such that we can blame the responsible citizen for the criminal behavior of the lawless few?!?
Has Modany been held accountable?
Modany’s advocacy for imprisoning and abusing Rohit Chopra, not to mention his impassioned law-and-order missives to staff (“How far away are we from refusing to put people in jail for committing crimes”), raises the question of whether Kevin Modany himself has been punished adequately for directing ITT’s reign of fraud. The answer is no, not yet at least.
In 2015, while ITT was still in business, the Securities and Exchange Commission sued ITT, Modany, and ex-ITT chief financial officer Daniel Fitzpatrick, alleging that the company and executives concealed from investors “the poor performance and looming financial impact of two student loan programs that ITT financially guaranteed … Modany and Fitzpatrick should have been responsible stewards for investors but instead … they engineered a campaign of deception and half-truths that left ITT’s auditors and investors in the dark concerning the company’s mushrooming obligations.” In July 2018, after the SEC commissioners took the rare step of rejecting a settlement the SEC staff had reached with Modany and Fitzpatrick, they agreed to a slightly better, but still very weak, settlement with the two former executives, imposing penalties of $200,000 and $100,000, respectively, and barring each from serving as officers or directors of public companies for five years.
In January 2020, Indianapolis-based U.S. District Judge James Patrick Hanlon issued a ruling rejecting Modany’s effort to escape additional civil liability, ruling that the federal bankruptcy trustee for ITT, Deborah Caruso, could proceed with her claim that Modany unlawfully put his self-interest above the company when he refused to consider offers to sell the business that required him to step down.
Judge Hanlon found that Modany knew that state and federal law enforcement agencies were refusing to settle their claims against ITT Tech unless he resigned or was fired. Yet Modany, who risked losing a big severance payment if he was terminated for cause, resisted. The judge found that Caruso had presented sufficient facts to indicate “that Mr. Modany pursued a strategy designed to maximize his compensation and allow him to remain as CEO and acted with a purpose other than ITT’s best interests.” (Modany said it’s not his fault.)
Modany was paid tens of millions of dollars by ITT over the years; $7,629,172 in 2009 alone. He received some $5.4 million from 2014 to 2016, plus use of a company car, tickets to sporting and theater events, and other pricey perqs, even as ITT was collapsing under his leadership. Modany’s ITT office sported “glossy wooden furniture … a 55-inch flat-screen TV mounted on the wall … a small gym with two treadmills, an elliptical trainer, a pull-up tower and silver free weights … a small bathroom with a shower … a Keurig coffeemaker and a Ninja blender,” while his company was getting nearly 90 percent of its revenue from US taxpayers to educate mostly lower-income Americans.
Amazingly, Modany has sought another $5 million in the bankruptcy for compensation he believes the company still owes him. Caruso has argued that Modany’s claim should be rejected and that money should flow in the opposite direction: out of Modany’s pocket and into the hands of other ITT creditors.
Until recently, Kevin Modany has billed himself post-ITT on his LinkedIn profile as an “Independent Executive Management and Strategy Consultant.” Now he claims on that page to have been, since September 2016, “Managing Director, Bluerock Partners,” where he offers “executive management and strategy consulting to companies in various industries with a focus on business services as well as multi-location operations.” (Indiana corporate records show Modany as incorporator of Blue Rock Associates, Inc., a company created in Indiana in December 2014.) On LinkedIn, Modany also now describes his fourteen years at ITT with the euphemistic notation that he worked as CEO at “ESI Service Corp.” (the formal corporate name for ITT), with no explanation of what that entity is or what specifically he did there.
Are more ITT Techs and Modanys still out there?
The new report suggests that Kevin Modany was his own particular brand of vile. But his school ITT Tech was no outlier. It was a member of the industry’s main trade association (called CCA, then APSCU, and now CECU), and Modany appeared side-by-side with other industry leaders.
Moreover, many other for-profit schools, past and present, have essentially used the same playbook as ITT: advertise heavily, recruit aggressively, deceive readily, enroll as many students as possible, as fast as possible. Charge high prices, but underspend on education. Lie to accreditors and government agencies. Resist oversight and regulation at all costs. Lash out at critics, sign up new students and cash their federal aid checks until the day you’re driven out of business, then deny responsibility.
ITT’s abusive business model is echoed at many for-profit colleges still getting federal dollars to enroll students today, including large operations such as International Education Corporation (operators of Florida Career College), Perdoceo Education Corporation (American Intercontinental University and Colorado Technical University), and Zovio (Ashford University, now called University of Arizona Global Campus).
As the PPSL report urges, “The outrageous abuses at ITT, and the terrible consequences for its students, as revealed in this report, should compel the U.S. Department of Education and other federal and state oversight and law enforcement agencies to vigorously investigate allegations of predatory abuses at current schools and take strong action to protect students and taxpayers.”
ITT was, as the new report charges, “a money-making scam that systematically and brazenly lied to students in order to profit from their federal financial aid, and then saddled them with a lifetime of devastating debt.” Yet the Department of Education kept ITT eligible for federal student grants and loans – essentially bestowing a federal seal of approval on the school – until the bitter end.
Candidate Joe Biden pledged to flip the script at the education department, ending for-profit schools’ perceived permanent entitlement to federal aid, and requiring them to prove their value to students and taxpayers. It’s time Biden’s administration stepped up and kept that promise. That includes taking steps to hold college executives personally and financially responsible for overseeing fraud.
By the way, Kevin Modany and ITT’s corrupt conduct was a key impetus for this website and my work on higher education. Meeting face to face in 2011, when I worked at the Center for American Progress, with Navy veteran Adam Gonyea, a former ITT student, and Rashidah Smallwood, a former ITT financial aid administrator, and hearing their accounts of egregious abuses at the school, was the experience that convinced me to stay engaged long-term on the issue of for-profit college accountability.