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Alleged Diploma Mill Used Churches to Recruit Pupils

Congregations shared in tuition that immigrants paid for phony high school degree, state says.

August 30, 2004|Jason Felch | Times Staff Writer

An adult school accused of selling bogus high school diplomas to thousands of immigrants paid churches to help recruit students and house classes, according to interviews with law enforcement, school and church officials. The disclosure has roiled congregations and raised questions about the role of some church leaders in the operation.

The commercial California Alternative High School paid some churches in immigrant communities across Southern California an average of $125 per graduate and allowed the churches to keep income from the sale of school materials, according to interviews and court records.

After 30 hours of classes, students were given a diploma that school officials said would give them access to accredited colleges and universities and state and federal financial aid programs, according to court records.

But a lawsuit filed this month by the state attorney general accused school operators of "exploiting immigrants' dreams of a better life."

According to court records, the school used untrained teachers who taught that there are 53 states in the union, four branches of government and two houses of Congress -- one for Republicans and one for Democrats.

The attorney general's suit seeks restitution for students and $32 million in penalties, charging that the program lied to students when it told them it was recognized by the state and federal governments. So far, no church officials have been implicated in the alleged fraud, though two former employees of World Mission Maranatha Evangelistic Center were named in the civil suit.

Some parishioners said they were disturbed by the financial link between the church leaders they trusted and the school they believed deceived them.

"With the faith we are given as children, we are taught to believe the pastor no matter what. That's what makes us vulnerable," said Maria Moreno, 55, a nursing assistant in Sylmar who said she took the class because she wanted to become a registered nurse. "Now I'm confused, angry. All these people use these churches to rip us off."

Josefina Roa and 20 other parishioners who took the classes have demanded an explanation from the pastor of their church in Reseda. Roa, who needed a diploma to keep her job as a teacher's assistant with the Los Angeles Unified School District, said: "You come with your faith, and you believe, but these papers aren't worth anything."

In an interview, the school's director, Daniel Gossai, denied that his school misled students but said that "every pastor, every church organization where we have classes was being given certain amounts of money."

Of the average $600 per student charged for the 10-week course, church leaders were given a $75 to $175 donation, Gossai said. In addition, some churches kept the money they charged for caps and gowns, photos and school supplies.

Authorities are continuing their investigation of California Alternative High School, which claims 78 locations nationwide and might have taught tens of thousands of students.

Seized records confirm that some of the more than 30 churches where classes were held received payments, investigators said, but they have not reviewed records for all the churches. Investigators believe most churches were duped along with their parishioners.

"That was part of the brilliant idea Gossai had -- using the trust that congregants have in their church leaders," said Rigoberto Reyes, an investigator with the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer Affairs.

Officials at five churches interviewed by The Times said they accepted donations from the alternative high school as rent for the space used and to offset the costs of classes. A sixth church denied having received any money from the school. Officials at all the churches said they thought the school was providing a valuable service for parishioners.

"We're devastated that it was not a viable program," said Diane Hernandez, an elder at Canoga Park Presbyterian Church, which discontinued the classes after being warned by a former student that the diplomas were not valid.

But court documents and interviews indicate that Maranatha had a particularly close relationship with the school.

Starting in 2000, the seven-branch church based in Bellflower allowed its facilities to be used for the classes. Gossai said the church played a key role in the school's success, providing more than half of the students and receiving more than $1 million in donations in return.

Moreno, the student from Sylmar, attended classes at a Maranatha church in South Gate with more than 100 other students in May 2002. In addition to $575 in tuition, she says she paid the church $50 for the class workbook, $80 to rent the required cap and gown for graduation, and $225 for optional graduation photos. She says she turned down the $25-per-person graduation meal and the graduation rings that were offered, and never had to pay the $150 make-up fee for missed classes.

"The church said they didn't keep a cent," Moreno said.

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