Who Watches the Watchdog?

In the shadow of a multimillion-dollar lawsuit, Chapman University is accused of being a bit too close to its accrediting agency

An attorney preparing to do battle in a multimillion-dollar case against Orange-based Chapman University says a string of e-mails he's uncovered shows the school is too cozy with the agency that is supposed to be a higher-education watchdog.

Daniel Bartley, lawyer for three former professors suing Chapman, alleges the school engaged in witness "coaching." Bartley says he filed a subpoena that forced the university and its accreditor, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), to hand over several months' worth of communication.

A Chapman attorney called the e-mail exchanges "routine in a complex case."

On Oct. 1 in Los Angeles, a U.S. District Court judge will decide if the allegations are relevant when Chapman files its final motion to have the lawsuit dismissed. In two previous dismissal attempts, both in 2006, the school was unsuccessful. If this motion fails, trial is scheduled to begin Nov. 6.

Known as a qui tam or whistleblower suit (see "Litigating It Old-School," Aug. 3), the lawsuit focuses on accusations that the school overestimated the number of hours students attended its Marriage and Family Therapist program over several years.

The professors, from Chapman's satellite campuses, say the school fraudulently pumped up its hours to maintain accreditation, which allowed students to receive tens of millions in financial aid going back to 1994. If the lawsuit prevails, the private university could be required to pay back up to three times the amount of all the grants and defaulted loans afforded to its students over that time period, estimated to be in the hundreds of millions.

Chapman has so far refused to settle the case, in one e-mail referring to an offer from Bartley as "completely outlandish."

Bartley says the e-mails show Chapman attorneys trying to put words in the mouth of WASC president Ralph Wolff prior to his sworn deposition in December 2006. The subpoenaed exchanges include seven pages that appear to be in question-and-answer format, with Wolff cast as the one giving the answers.

WASC, a non-governmental agency, accredits degrees at 171 senior colleges and universities. Accreditation allows students eligibility for guaranteed financial aid and eases transferring credits between institutions.

Wolff was called as a witness to clarify whether the alleged misconduct by Chapman would result in a loss of accreditation. According to Wolff's testimony, it would not. Yet Bartley says Chapman fed its version of events to WASC lawyers, on which Wolff likely based his responses in sworn testimony. He calls it a case of "the regulated telling the regulator what to say."

"Mr. Wolff is the lapdog of Chapman," Bartley says.

Chapman lawyer Fred Plevin denies Bartley's assertion that the exchanges are a "smoking gun."

In an Aug. 17, 2006, e-mail, Plevin wrote, "I ask that you not share a copy of this letter with Mr. Wolff as part of his deposition preparation." Plevin instead requests that WASC lawyer Laurence Kessenick "review these issues with Mr. Wolff."

Kessenick did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment for this story.

Bartley says he doesn't accept that. "It gives an appearance of impropriety," he says. "I think [WASC] should have maintained an arm's-length relationship with the institution they're supposed to be regulating."

Plevin asserts that the e-mails sent to WASC were not shared with Wolff prior to his deposition. "Chapman's counsel never communicated with Mr. Wolff," he responded to the Weekly via e-mail. "Counsel for WASC was free to use or not use the information in their professional judgment."

Wolff, who denied in his deposition being given the reports from Chapman, is scheduled to be on vacation until October and, according to his assistant, is unavailable even by e-mail or cell phone. In an earlier interview with the Weekly, Wolff said WASC did not have enough evidence of misconduct to warrant investigating Chapman over the matters covered in the suit.

Therese Cannon, executive associate director of WASC's Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities, says only two or three schools per year come under any sort of sanction, such as probation. Complete removal of accredited status is rare.

Although unfamiliar with the case, Cannon says WASC probably didn't see the professors' claims as a serious enough violation. "We don't investigate institutions unless there's been a violation of our codes of conduct," she says.

Although Chapman failed twice to have the suit thrown out in 2006, the school's lawyers still insist it has "no merit" because WASC's Handbook of Accreditation does not specify any attendance-hour requirement, only "guidelines."


DOLSON@OCWEEKLY.COM

 
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