March 18, 2024

U of Idaho President Pressed Alumni Group To Hire Lobbyist for Phoenix Deal

U of Idaho President Pressed Alumni Group To Hire Lobbyist for Phoenix Deal

At the urging of University of Idaho president C. Scott Green, the school’s alumni association recently hired a lobbyist whose duties have included trying to persuade state legislators not to thwart Green’s plan for his school to acquire the for-profit giant University of Phoenix. The proposed deal to spend $685 million to buy Phoenix, a school that has repeatedly been caught engaging in predatory practices, has become increasingly controversial in the legislature and in the state. 

When Green pressed the alumni group, which is a non-profit organization legally separate from the university, to hire a lobbyist who could directly engage with state lawmakers on legislation, he noted he was asking them to do something that his university, as a publicly-funded institution, does not do.

The alumni association complied with Green’s request last month, hiring Jeremy Pisca, a Boise lawyer-lobbyist who was already on retainer to do work in the state capital for the University itself. 

The request from Green to the alumni board came as opposition to the Phoenix deal in the legislature has grown more intense, with many lawmakers expressing concern that the State Board of Education lacked the legal authority to create the new non-profit, Four Three Education, for the purpose of acquiring the University of Phoenix. Some legislators also raised doubts about the wisdom of the University of Idaho buying a for-profit college that has faced numerous law enforcement actions and now faces millions in potential liability for ripping off students over decades. 

The alumni group hired a lobbyist at Green’s request

I learned that Boise lawyer Jeremy Pisca, who already represented the University of Idaho in state matters, has in recent weeks been lobbying in the Idaho legislature on pending legislation concerning the Phoenix deal. I emailed Pisca to ask about the arrangement because I understood that the University of Idaho takes the position that, because it is funded by taxpayers, it does not lobby directly on legislation. 

Pisca wrote me back: “As a proud alumnus, I have been engaged by the University of Idaho Alumni Association (UIAA)…. I am assisting the University in accomplishing its many legislative priorities for the benefit of our many alumni and future alumni.” 

I followed up, asking Pisca about additional matters: the amount of his retainer with the alumni association, the period it covers, and when he reached agreement to be engaged by the alumni group. Pisca hasn’t responded.  Nor have I received responses to similar questions I sent to President Green, to Amy Lientz, the University of Idaho assistant vice president with responsibility over alumni matters, and to Travis Jones, the alumni board president. 

But Republic Report has obtained a letter, sent in early February from President Green, himself a University of Idaho graduate, to the alumni association board, in which he implores the board to hire a lobbyist. 

“I am reaching out to support your urgent action to allow the University of Idaho Alumni Association to provide additional legislative support to our alma mater,” Green wrote.

Green told the the board members that in the current Idaho legislative session, the university “faces a growing and concerning number of policy issues.” Thus, he wrote, “I am strongly supporting the UIAA’s interest in hiring a skilled and experienced lobbyist.” 

Green told board members that the alumni association could do what the University could not: “As a publicly funded institution, we do not engage in direct lobbying activities. Although we have a strong governmental relations liaison, the U of I expressly focuses on educating legislators on priorities and requests.”

“However,” Green wrote, “a 501(c)(3) organization not receiving state funding, such as the University of Idaho Alumni Association, can because the IRS allows 501(c)(3)s to participate in a limited amount of lobbying activities.”

Green acknowledged that hiring a lobbyist was “uncharted territory for UIAA.” But he told the board that other universities, including Boise State University, have had a lobbyist “contracted through their alumni association.” Green said the proposed hiring “is a short-term need to help us through this current legislative session.”

“I am very grateful,” Green concluded, “for your consideration of this need.”

Green’s letter did not reference Pisca or any other potential lobbyist by name.

Although Green’s letter also does not mention the University of Phoenix deal or state specifically what issues the lobbyist would address, Idaho statehouse sources say that Pisca, from the firm Risch Pisca Law and Policy, has indeed been lobbying regarding the proposed Phoenix acquisition, and in particular regarding House Concurrent Resolution 26, pending legislation asking the State Board of Education to reconsider the Phoenix deal and authorizing leaders of the legislature to sue to block it, if necessary.

The resolution questioning the Phoenix deal passed the Idaho House on March 5 by a a 49-21 vote, but its prospects are uncertain in the state Senate. 

Statehouse sources say that the University of Phoenix has been sending its own lobbyists to support the deal and oppose the legislation, and Green’s own University of Idaho team also has actively been meeting with legislators regarding the proposed acquisition.

Whether the decision that the University of Idaho Alumni Association lobby in favor of the controversial University of Phoenix deal was heavily debated, or instead was readily ratified, by the association’s governing board of directors might be of interest to the school’s alumni. Membership in the UIAA is free, so the decision did not involve the use of dues from thousands of alumni. In fact the UIAA’s budget is almost negligible, suggesting that it barely seeks donations and is mostly powered by volunteer effort and staff support from the university itself.

But not all of the school’s alumni would support their association lobbying for the Phoenix purchase. Some alums, as with some members of the legislature, do seem to equate support for the deal with support for efforts by President Green and Idaho Governor Brad Little (R), to invest in higher education for the state, in the face of attacks on higher ed by the state’s growing contingent of MAGA Republicans. But other alums of the school believe that supporting higher education in the state means rejecting, not advancing, the acquisition of the troubled University of Phoenix.

Such alums with whom I have spoken have expressed concerns about the impact of the Phoenix acquisition on the school’s reputation for quality and integrity and on its financial health —  not to mention the harms to the whole nation that would occur if the Idaho deal keeps alive a predatory college that can’t seem to find any other willing buyer, and currently draws 99 percent of its students, and a comparable degree of its taxpayer funding, from outside Idaho. 

The small size of the alumni association’s budget in recent years — just $27,216 in 2022, $17,965 in 2021, and $18,651 in 2020 — also raises questions about how much of this year’s budget has now been committed to pay Jeremy Pisca or any other advocate to lobby for the Phoenix deal. The firm Risch Pisca, whose other principal is Jason Risch, a litigator and the son of Idaho U.S. senator Jim Risch (R), presumably charges rates that could quickly eat into a budget of that size. Perhaps Pisca is providing discounted rates to the alumni association for his services. Or perhaps what is really happening is that a token payment from the association is providing the cover that allows Pisca, already on retainer to the university, to engage in lobbying that the university is forbidden to bankroll. 

Pisca and two colleagues at his firm filed state lobbying disclosure forms for the month of February listing the Alumni Association as a client.

More trouble signs for the Phoenix deal

The disclosure that Green pressed the alumni association to pay the university’s own legal representative to do lobbying that the school is not permitted to do comes amid increasing signs of trouble for the Phoenix deal, in the legislature and elsewhere.

The resolution that Pisca was lobbying against was bolstered by a letter issued February 22 by the legislature’s legal counsel, Elizabeth Bowen, who concluded that the Board of Education lacked authority, under the state constitution and statutes, to create a non-profit corporation, as the board did when it set up Four Three Education as the vehicle to buy Phoenix.

President Green, with a background working for pedigreed Wall Street firms, seemed to denigrate Bowen’s qualifications, saying at a legislative hearing that his chosen lawyers at the Boise-based firm Hawley Troxell were real “constitutional law experts” and that the matter was “too important and it’s too specialized an area to rely on a generalist.”

But last week, another prominent Boise firm, Givens Pursley, retained by the legislature to weigh in on the controversy, released an analysis essentially agreeing with Bowen, as did Idaho Attorney General Raúl Labrador. Labrador is also pursuing a separate lawsuit, set for hearing in June before the state Supreme Court, claiming the Board of Education’s closed-door meetings in advance of announcing the Phoenix deal violated the state’s open meetings law.

Financial analysts are also casting doubt on the deal. After Moody’s placed the University of Idaho’s bond rating under review for downgrade in light of the planned acquisition, and then issued an update on the state of Idaho’s credit rating, saying the Phoenix deal “presents some operating risk to the state,” Idaho state Treasurer Julie Ellsworth issued a statement saying the Phoenix acquisition could threaten Idaho’s credit rating and thus create costs for taxpayers. 

Meanwhile, Moody’s also this month downgraded the University of Arizona’s bond rating from stable to negative and cited risks associated with the school’s acquisition of for-profit Ashford University — a deal that is strikingly similar to the Idaho-Phoenix deal, and that has helped trigger a dire financial crisis at the Arizona school. Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs has sharply criticized the University of Arizona president and the Arizona Board of Regents over the Ashford purchase. 

Perhaps Hobbs’ awareness of the awfulness of the Arizona-Ashford debacle colored the recent decision by her Arizona Industrial Development Authority (AzIDA) to reject the application of Idaho officials to issue bonds to finance the Idaho-Phoenix deal. The Lewiston Tribune reported Thursday that the Arizona agency had refused to finance the acquisition, leading Idaho officials to seek a similar arrangement with a bond agency in New Hampshire.

We can further report on a recent email from Governor Hobbs’ office providing a rationale for the bond decision. The email, sent March 8 from Hobbs’ Office of Constituent Services to Dahn Shaulis, a higher education researcher and advocate who opposes the Idaho-Phoenix deal, said in part; “AzIDA is a tool for inclusive economic development… During her first year in office, Governor Hobbs outlined new priorities and standards for the AzIDA, including prioritizing certain types of in-state projects. These new guardrails were coupled with the appointment of new board members.” Regarding the Idaho-Phoenix deal, the email from Hobbs’ office said, “AzIDA will not be issuing bonds for that project as it does not meet the new criteria.” 

Amid all this wreckage, the Idaho Statesman opined last week, “At this point, it would be better to pull the plug on this whole deal while we can still get out. The University of Idaho will be out the $12 million it’s already put into the deal, but that’s a whole heck of a lot better than being out $685 million.”

Why hasn’t Green pulled the plug?

So far, the sure-of-himself President Green has refused to back down in the face of all the troubling facts, legal analyses, and critical reviews.  That may have to do with his certainty that he was right about the deal, or pride, or maybe the $12 million or more of university funds he already has spent on high-priced lawyers and consultants to pursue the acquisition. 

It could be that Green still believes he can best make his mark on his school and state by bringing his international finance skills to bear through a major acquisition. He has declared that he is marshaling the “best of the best” legal and deal-making talent available, and Phoenix’s supposedly “world class” systems, in order to bring online learning to rural Idahoans whom he called, at a recent House hearing, “the common people.” 

Green is failing to see what the University of Phoenix is actually “world class” at: running a call center that is fined-tuned to separate unsuspecting people — veterans, single moms, immigrants, older people — from their money by selling phony dreams.

Barely four years ago, Phoenix reached a record $191 million settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, which claimed the school had lured students with false claims about partnerships with major employers. Phoenix ran ads falsely indicating that the school had deals with companies including AT&T, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Twitter, and the American Red Cross to create job opportunities for its students and tailor school programs for such jobs, when that was not the case. The deceptive claim went to the heart of prospective students’ motivations for enrolling. Andrew Smith, then the Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said at the time of the agreement, “Students making important decisions about their education need the facts, not fantasy job opportunities that do not exist.”

Phoenix has been exposed engaging in similar types of deceptions before and since.

Phoenix’s moneymaking prowess has long been dependent on aggressive and deceptive marketing, plus high prices, rather than provision of quality education. So, if the University of Idaho buys the school, unless Phoenix sticks with its risky predatory playbook, the millions in revenues that Green has touted might plummet fast.

Green is also underestimating the growing danger of financial liability for his University from claims by victims of Phoenix’s past deceptive conduct

One long-time Boise political observer even speculated that Green wanted to add the 80,000 students enrolled at Phoenix to leapfrog over the student population at rival Boise State, which presently has some 22,000 students, nearly twice what Green’s school boasts today.

Whatever his motivation, it seems that Green could benefit now from reading a book on university crisis management. Fortunately, such a book was published in December 2023, authored by a current university head. The book is called “University President’s Crisis Handbook”and is 443 pages long. A blurb on the university’s website promoting it says, “By popular demand, our president is sharing his perspective on management through periods of intense turmoil and difficulty.” The university president who responded to the popular demand and generously authored the book is you guessed it.