Thursday, July 28, 2005

State sues
pharmacy college

The consumer agency seeks
tuition refunds, alleging the
school misled students

The Hawaii College of Pharmacy in Kapolei illegally misled students about its accreditation and affiliations, breached contracts and retaliated against students who raised questions about the school, a state agency said in a lawsuit filed yesterday.

The Hawaii Office of Consumer Protection's suit, filed in state Circuit Court, asks the court to award students repayment of their $28,000 tuition and to bar the college from accepting money from other students until it complies with state laws governing unaccredited schools.

Steve Levins, director of the Office of Consumer Protection, said a central concern involves the state's contention that the school misled students about the college's accreditation, without which graduates cannot practice as pharmacists.

"The most troubling aspect of this is the assurances that they were right on track with the accreditation process, whereas they really weren't on first base," Levins said.

John Quinn, a former student who left the school earlier this year because he said he was not getting a solid education there, applauded the suit.

"It certainly supports what we've been saying," Quinn said, "but none of us will feel vindicated until we get our money back and the school is shut down."

H.A. Hasan, dean of the Hawaii College of Pharmacy, said the college was studying the allegations and was not ready to comment on specific accusations. However, Hasan said in a statement, "It is worth noting that all students were informed prior to enrollment -- in person and in writing -- that HICP did not yet have accreditation."

The school plans to resubmit an application with the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education by Oct. 1, Hasan said.

The suit represents the latest in a series of escalating blows to the college, which has come under increasing criticism from students following an inaugural year in which several faculty left the school and the accreditation council asked the college to withdraw its application.

Tensions flared earlier this month after Hasan announced a plan to hold back more than half of the college's inaugural class of more than 240 students, regardless of whether students had passed their courses. The move was meant to appease the accreditation council.

After the announcement, Hasan sought a court order barring from campus three students he said were planning to incite rioting and violence at the school. But Hasan's attorney withdrew the request during a court hearing earlier this week.

The state's complaint outlines a raft of claims against the college's parent corporation, Pacific Educational Services Co. of Nevada, and its founders, Denise Criswell and David Monroe.

According to the suit, the state first contacted the Hawaii College of Pharmacy in September 2003. The college told state officials it had no students and would not accept any until the college had made progress toward accreditation with the council, which accredits doctoral pharmacy programs.

But the complaint said the college began accepting students before that point, and the college has acknowledged it did so.

The state also claims the college failed to adequately disclose to students that it was not accredited and lied about the progress it was making toward accreditation. Furthermore, the complaint alleges, the college illegally misled students about the college's affiliation with the University of Southern Nevada and its president, Harry Rosenberg, who had started the Nevada university's accredited pharmacy program. Although a Hawaii College of Pharmacy handbook identifies Rosenberg as chairman of the college's board of trustees, Rosenberg recently told the Star-Bulletin that he has never been affiliated with the Hawaii college.

The state also took issue with the college's stated plan to hold back more than half of its first-year class, saying the plan amounts to a "systematic breach of contracts." Students had enrolled in a three-year doctoral program; the plan means some students would have to spend four years or even longer at the college, the suit says.

The suit also pointed to the school's decision to suspend and seek injunctions against students Ammata Vongsouvanh, Pejman Mesdaghi and Pooyan Mesdaghi, who the college alleged were planning rioting and violence. The suit says the students were preparing to file complaints with the state's Office of Consumer Protection and that the college's actions were retaliatory and meant to "deter others from exercising their rights to redress with a government agency."

Pejman Mesdaghi expressed regret for students who might suffer if the school is shut down completely.

"We never intended to harm anyone," he said. "We just wanted the truth."

What is at stake?

In its lawsuit against the Hawaii College of Pharmacy and its founders, the state Office of Consumer Protection has asked the state Circuit Court to:

» Bar the college from collecting tuition.

» Bar the college and principals from transferring assets.

» Require the college to pay back students' $28,000 tuition, with interest.

» Award the state legal fees.

» Bar the defendants from owning or operating a business in Hawaii until the defendants have satisfied the office's requests.

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