Campaign Pitch at For-Profit College Leads to State Investigation in Kentucky

September 02, 2011

Jack Conway, the Kentucky attorney general who is leading a 20-state investigation into for-profit colleges has become a prime political target for that industry. Now state officials are investigating whether the anti-Conway tactics of some of the colleges violate state election laws.

Last week officials from the attorney general's office appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the allegations, after an employee of Spencerian College, part of the for-profit Sullivan University system in Kentucky, reported being publicly pressured in front of 150 fellow employees to donate to the campaign of Mr. Conway's opponent in the coming November election.

The special prosecutor has also been asked to investigate alleged election-law violations by another for-profit institution, National College, which operates campuses in Kentucky and five other states.

National and Spencerian are among the institutions now under investigation by the attorney general's office for possible violations of consumer-fraud laws in student recruiting. Officials at both colleges have also held events for Mr. Conway's Republican opponent, Todd P'Pool. It was National's event, held on August 25, that appears to have prompted its inclusion in the special prosecutor's probe. National officials insist Mr. P'Pool's appearance at a Lexington campus was "simply a visit by a public figure; it was in no way a 'fund raiser' and neither funds nor votes were solicited by anyone."

Executives of both college companies have also been vocal critics of Mr. Conway's investigation, with Sullivan's namesake co-founder, A.R. Sullivan, calling it a "re-election sham," according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.

The Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities has also gotten into the fray. This spring the association wrote a letter to Mr. Conway objecting to his mention of the for-profit college investigation in his political fund-raising appeals.

An association spokesman declined to provide The Chronicle with a copy of the letter, saying, "Unfortunately, I cannot share it with you." A spokeswoman for Mr. Conway's office said the letter was "part of an investigative file and unable to be shared."

Election-Law Violation or Not?

The special prosecutor's probe was prompted by a written complaint filed with the elections office and Mr. Conway's office by a former Spencerian admissions officer, Kayla Porter. She reported that during a training session in early August in Louisville, the university system's vice president for enrollment management, Jim Crick, had asked employees to raise their hands to show that they would give at least $25 to the P'Pool campaign.

In the complaint, Ms. Porter said that Mr. Crick had said he wanted to raise $2,000 for the P'Pool campaign from the department, and urged the employees to donate via the Sullivan corporate admissions office, so the smaller contributions could be pooled and donated as a larger single sum from Sullivan.

"I just felt that was just so far over the line for what was appropriate for a workplace," Ms. Porter told The Chronicle in an interview Thursday. "I resigned the next morning."

Earlier in the training session, she said, Mr. Sullivan had also urged employees "not to vote for Jack Conway," and, according to her letter, "he also told any Democrats in the room not to vote a straight Democratic ticket."

Under Kentucky state law, coercing or directing employees to vote for any political party or candidate is a felony.

Grover Potts Jr., a lawyer for the Sullivan system, said the officials and the institution have done nothing wrong. "It wasn't illegal. There was no coercion," he said Thursday. "Under the Kentucky election laws, we don't think it was a violation."

Mr. Potts said it is no secret that Mr. Sullivan believes Mr. Conway's consumer-fraud investigation is "political in nature" and the call for political donations to his opponent is a logical extension of that. Mr. Conway has "lumped all the proprietary institutions into the bag that says 'you're bad,'" said Mr. Potts. So it stands to reason, said Mr. Potts, that supporters of for-profit colleges would say, "Maybe we don't need Jack Conway being the attorney general."

The Conway campaign has urged Mr. P'Pool to reject donations from parties associated with the colleges under investigation. "It reeks of putting a 'for sale' sign on the door of the attorney general's office," said Mr. Conway, in an interview with The Chronicle on Thursday.

The P'Pool campaign has reported about $20,000 worth of such donations, but that includes only contributions reported through May. The next reports are due in mid-October. Mr. P'Pool has said he would not reject the campaign money but said donations would not affect his policies if elected.

According to a regional cable-news show poll released Thursday night, Mr. Conway leads Mr. P'Pool by 27 percentage points.