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Former Professor: Charlotte School Of Law Defrauded Taxpayers

Davie Hinshaw
Charlotte Observer

Charlotte School of Law and its parent company Infilaw are the subjects of many recent lawsuits filed by former students. But now there's one filedby a professor in June of 2016. It had been under seal for more than a year because the federal government was investigating her allegations. The lawsuit says the now-closed school defrauded taxpayers out of $285 million by accepting unqualified students, manipulating grades and pursuing other methods to keep failing students enrolled – all in an effort to continue to collect tuition paid through federal loans.

RUMSEY: Why has this lawsuit been sealed for more than a year?

WORF: Former Charlotte School of Law Professor Barbara Bernier filed the lawsuit last June under the False Claims Act, which means it's a whistleblower's lawsuit. Those lawsuits are sealed for at least 60 days to give the government time to decide whether to intervene. In this instance, the U.S. Attorney's office in Orlando requested it be sealed up until this month because it was investigating the allegations. The case was filed in Florida where the school's parent company Infilaw is located. That investigation continues, but the U.S. Attorney's office hasn't decided whether to intervene at this point.

RUMSEY: Some of these allegations sound familiar. Are there any new accusations here? 

WORF: Yes, I've heard students and former faculty members mention some of the programs Bernier outlines in the lawsuit. But she gives specific numbers I hadn't heard before. For example, Charlotte School of Law offered students with really low LSAT scores an alternative way to gain admission to the school. Take an online course it offered called AAMPLE. The lawsuit says in 2015, 70 percent of first year law students there gained admission through that program and that an administrator had remarked to her once, what a slim chance those students had of passing the bar, even if they got good grades.

RUMSEY: What are the allegations around manipulating records?

WORF: The school has a high drop-out rate. Right around 2015, nearly half of first-year students ended up leaving, mostly due to academic reasons. That's part of the school's disclosures to the American Bar Association. The lawsuit claims the school lowered the grade point students needed to stay in school. Bernier's suit says students originally had to have an average grapde point of 2.0 in order to be in good academic standing. Over time, the school's president decided to change that to 1.5 without faculty agreement. She said that meant 65 students who should've been let go, instead were allowed to stay on – and the school continued to collect their tuition in the form of federal loans. 

RUMSEY: You've reported on the school paying recent graduates to delay taking the bar. Does that come up here? 

WORF: It does. We know the school offered some recent graduates a stipend of at least $5,000 to go through an intensive study course. The lawsuit calls it a "residency" program and says Charlotte School of Law characterized these students as employees of the school's library. However, it says librarians were instructed not to request these employees to perform any work. The lawsuit claims this allowed the school to manipulate its employment statistics for recent graduates.

RUMSEY: In other words, Charlotte School of Law counted these students as being employed because the school paid them a stipend to take a study course. 

WORF: That's correct, according to the lawsuit. 

RUMSEY: How did Ms. Bernier come across all these numbers?

WORF: That's what I wondered too. Bernier taught constitutional law at the school.  She worked there for about 3-and-a-half years, starting in January of 2013. That's just as the school really began to expand. She resigned a couple months after filing this lawsuit about a year ago. I spoke with her lawyer Coleman Watson. He said she heard some of those statistics in faculty meetings, but also did some of her own independent research. There are other things the lawsuit mentioned. For example, the school's parent company Infilaw wanted to enter into a gold mining contract with Haiti. The school offered a course in that country. I asked Watson about that and he said Bernier wasn't sure what to make of that, but they thought it was important to put it in the lawsuit, to get it on record. 

RUMSEY: What has the Charlotte School of Law said about this?

WORF: Not much.  Just that they recently received the complaint and intend to vigorously defend itself against the allegations. Of course, the school closed August 11th, after its operating license expired.  

Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.