School and Owner Pay Over $1 Million to Resolve Allegations of Attempts to Improperly Influence the School’s Student Loan Default Rate

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FILE PHOTO: Signage is seen at the United States Department of Justice headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Vanessa Roberts Avery, United States Attorney for the District of Connecticut, today announced that CAREER TRAINING SPECIALISTS, LLC, doing business as STONE ACADEMY, and its owner, MARK SCHEINBERG, have paid more than $1 million to resolve allegations that they violated the federal False Claims Act by concealing a series of money order payments made by Scheinberg to prevent certain loans from being counted in Stone Academy’s student loan default rate, and for failing to disclose Stone Academy’s actual, higher default rate to the U.S. Department of Education.

Stone Academy is a for-profit school with campuses in East Hartford, Waterbury and West Haven that awards career diplomas in various medical fields, and it participates in federal student loan and grant programs under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965.  One measure that determines an institution’s eligibility to participate in Title IV programs is the institution’s “cohort default rate” (“CDR”), which is the percentage of the institution’s federal student loan borrowers who default (or are deemed to default) within a specified time after entering repayment status.  If an institution’s CDR is too high – an indicator that too many of an institution’s graduates are unable to repay their student loans – the institution faces administrative consequences that may include termination of eligibility to participate in certain Title IV programs.  For purposes of calculating an institution’s CDR, a borrower is considered to be in default if an institution – or an institution’s owner, agent or affiliated individual – makes a payment to prevent a borrower’s default on a loan included in a cohort.

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This settlement resolves allegations that, between February 2015 and March 2019, Scheinberg and Stone Academy mailed 154 small, direct payments to loan servicers on behalf of 102 students in attempts to prevent those students from defaulting on their loans and being counted in Stone Academy’s CDR.  The payments were made with money orders purchased and filled out by Scheinberg without the students’ knowledge or consent, and in a manner intended to conceal the fact that these payments were made by Scheinberg and Stone Academy.  Stone Academy then failed to disclose to the Department of Education its actual, higher CDR reflecting the deemed default of numerous borrowers given Scheinberg’s concealed payments.

In addition to making payment of $1,023,950, plus interest, under a civil settlement agreement, Stone Academy and Scheinberg also entered into an administrative agreement with the Department of Education in which Scheinberg agreed to cease involvement and participation in the operations, and divest direct ownership, of both Stone Academy and another for-profit school, Creative Workforce LLC, doing business as Paier College of Art.  The administrative agreement also governs Scheinberg’s agreed-to retirement from Goodwin University and the University of Bridgeport.

“The cohort default rate is an important metric that students can use to research whether a school provides a valuable education because it can show whether the degree they would earn will help them find employment that allows them to stay current on their student loans,” said U.S. Attorney Avery.  “Educational institutions – especially private, for-profit schools – that attempt to hide high student loan default rates from the Education Department and their students not only risk forfeiting their and their students’ eligibility to receive federal funds, but they risk federal enforcement by our office and our investigative agency partners.”

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“Today’s settlement is a result of the work and effort of the Office of Inspector General and the Department of Justice to protect and maintain the integrity of federal student aid programs,” said Terry Harris, Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Department of Education Office of Inspector General’s Eastern Regional Office.  “We will continue to work together to ensure that federal student aid funds are used as required by law.  America’s taxpayers and students deserve nothing less.”

This investigation was conducted by the U.S. Department of Education – Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.  This matter was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Gruber with the assistance of Auditor Susan N. Spiegel, along with assistance from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of General Counsel and Federal Student Aid.