Tech-Oriented School Falsely Certified that Foreign Enrollees Would Follow Rules for Student Visas, Say U.S. Prosecutors
Complaint: Students Worked Full-Time Jobs, ITU Gave Top Grades to No-Shows
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (January 29, 2021) — A private university that caters largely to foreign workers seeking jobs in Silicon Valley will pay $1.17 million to settle claims that it misled U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for six years by falsely certifying that students qualified for F-1 visas.
The Santa Clara-based university, International Technological University (ITU), also agreed to settle claims of retaliation against a whistleblower in the case, Concepcion Saenz-Cambra, and to pay Dr. Saenz-Cambra’s legal fees. As the person who reported the alleged visa fraud, Dr. Saenz-Cambra will receive a share of ITU’s payment to the U.S. government.
The existence of the settlement, which covers a period from 2010 through 2015, was disclosed via filings this month in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The case was part of a broader battle between ITU and ICE’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program, which since 2016 had sought to shut down ITU’s ability to enroll F-1 students, according to court filings.
Dr. Saenz-Cambra is represented by The Employment Law Group® law firm. After being hired in 2014 as ITU’s director of faculty affairs, she voiced concerns about the school’s practices but was rebuffed by ITU’s since-replaced leaders, according to a complaint she filed in October 2015 under the federal False Claims Act (FCA).
Among other things, Dr. Saenz-Cambra’s complaint alleged that ITU became known as a “visa mill” by ignoring ICE rules about the education of its F-1 students — including, in some cases, by admitting non-proficient English speakers; by waiving the requirement to attend classes; by awarding high grades for substandard work, or for no work at all; and by declining to penalize cheating.
According to the complaint, many of ITU’s F-1 visa recipients worked at high-tech companies in full-time positions that were improperly accepted by ITU as student internships — a subversion of the rules for full-time employment of foreign workers, who typically would need to obtain H-1B visas.
H-1B visas are limited in supply, unlike F-1s, and carry a higher fee.
Dr. Saenz-Cambra’s complaint named Tesla Motors Inc.1 and Beta Soft Systems Inc., of Fremont, Calif.2, as conspirators in the scheme, but the U.S. government declined to pursue claims against either company. Prosecutors also didn’t pursue any of the ITU executives and board members who were named individually in the complaint. Following the settlement with ITU, all claims in the matter were dismissed on January 26, 2021, by U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick.
The FCA, originally signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, makes it illegal to defraud the federal government. The law includes a “qui tam” provision that allows whistleblowers to file a complaint on behalf of the government and — if they prevail — to receive a portion of any resulting settlement or judgment.
The FCA typically is wielded against vendors who gain taxpayer dollars under false pretenses — via fraudulent claims on the Medicare insurance program, for example. In the ITU case, while the government said it was deprived of appropriate fees for work visa applications, the largest harm was non-monetary: The subversion of the visa system itself.
“The U.S. government has a strong interest in ensuring that programmatic benefits — in this case, student visas — go only to qualified recipients,” said Janel Quinn, a principal of The Employment Law Group (TELG), who represents Dr. Saenz-Cambra. “Prosecutors have many ways to police the misuse of federal programs, of course. The lesson here is that the False Claims Act can be a powerful tool even when the primary damage to the government isn’t financial.”
Dr. Saenz-Cambra’s lawsuit remained under seal for several years while being investigated by the Justice Department. During that time, according to an amended complaint filed in 2016, ITU learned of the probe and fired Dr. Saenz-Cambra. The university has since overhauled its leadership and recently hired back Dr. Saenz-Cambra in a different role.
The qui tam case was finally unsealed on January 8, 2021.
Ms. Quinn represents Dr. Saenz-Cambra along with R. Scott Oswald, TELG’s managing principal and leader of its qui tam practice; both are based in Washington, D.C. They worked closely on the case with Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Lo from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California. J. Bernard Alexander III, a partner at Alexander Morrison + Fehr, LLP in Los Angeles, served as local counsel.
1 Now Tesla, Inc.
2 Beta Soft Systems appears to have stopped operating under this corporate identity.
United States ex rel. Saenz-Cambra v. International Technological University
U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, San Francisco Division
Original complaint filed on October 7, 2015
Amended complaint filed on August 15, 2016 (available here)
About The Employment Law Group
The Employment Law Group® law firm represents whistleblowers and other employees who stand up to wrongdoing in the workplace. Based in Washington, D.C., the firm takes cases nationwide.