Thursday, August 11, 2005

Prescription runs out
for college of pharmacy

A ruling freezes the school's assets
for allegedly misleading students

A state judge dealt a fatal blow yesterday to the fledgling Hawaii College of Pharmacy, freezing the Kapolei school's assets pending the resolution of a lawsuit filed by the state.

Hawaii Circuit Judge Sabrina McKenna's ruling technically stopped short of shutting down the college. But Dean H.A. Hasan confirmed that the ruling "effectively (closes) the Hawaii College of Pharmacy."

The ruling freezes the assets of the college's parent company, Pacific Educational Services Co. of Nevada, and its founders, Denise Criswell and David Monroe, rendering the college unable to pay operating expenses.

The college had 123 students committed to return for their second year next month, and another 90 had opted to sit out a year and return for the 2006-07 school year, Hasan said.

Ruling against the college, McKenna said there was considerable evidence that Criswell and Monroe had illegally misled prospective students about the school, which is a central allegation of a lawsuit filed last month by the state Office of Consumer Protection based on student complaints. The office had received 34 complaints as of yesterday morning, an attorney for the state said.

McKenna said she did not believe the school's leaders had the wherewithal to receive the accreditations necessary for graduates of the college to practice as pharmacists.

"I don't think these people have the capacity to put it together," McKenna said.

In a written statement, Hasan said the college was "extremely disappointed by the court's decision."

Although the ruling freezes the college's assets, it does not provide what the Office of Consumer Protection ultimately seeks: restitution for students who paid $28,000 in tuition to attend the three-year doctoral program for a year. The Office of Consumer Protection still must convince the court that college administrators illegally deceived students.

But McKenna repeatedly said yesterday that it appeared the college and its founders had violated the law.

"It's ... pretty clear that the individuals engaged in unfair and deceptive trade practices," she said.

During the hearing, McKenna sought to determine the college's prospects for gaining accreditation by the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education.

The college's attorney, Kelvin Kaneshiro, said the college was making progress toward accreditation, but could provide no guarantees.

"At this point, to give the court assurances, one way or another, on how the ACPE would rule is impossible," he said.

But Jeffrey Brunton, an attorney for the consumer protection office, said his interviews with the directors of the accreditation council had painted a bleak picture of the college's prospects.

"We wouldn't be here today if they were optimistic," he said of the council's directors.

McKenna gave several students a chance to speak at the hearing.

Benjamin Keroles echoed other supporters by asking the judge to give the school administration more time.

"I'm a firm believer that the school can and will over time be accredited," he said.

But Brandon Camp, the lone student speaking against the school, complained that he had given up the chance to attend pharmacy schools on the mainland based on empty promises from the Hawaii college.

"For a lot of us, we wouldn't have come to this school if we had known all the facts," Camp said.

Given the school's possibility of accreditation, Kaneshiro said freezing the school's assets was "too drastic a measure to take at this point."

But Brunton said the state was concerned that unless the assets were frozen, the college would not have enough money to pay back students if the court ultimately ruled in the state's favor.

Brunton said the college has a negative balance of more than $400,000 in a checking account, and said financial records indicate that the college had funneled approximately $500,000 in student tuition to the school's affiliated Hawaii College of Dental Medicine, which is under development.

McKenna expressed sympathy to students, saying that financial restitution alone could not compensate them fully for what they had lost.

"It's not just money; we're talking about years out of young peoples' lives," she said. "We're talking about broken dreams."

But McKenna said she did not want the students to go through more years of uncertainty with a college run by people with dubious credibility. McKenna took particular note of a college handbook that identified Monroe and Criswell as doctors.

Upon questioning from the judge, Monroe and Criswell acknowledged that they had not yet received their doctorates in education from Nova Southeastern University of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

"It's just so telling when people represent themselves as doctors, and they're not," McKenna said. "To me that's enough."

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