School settles fraud claims

A defunct Gig Harbor-based vocational school has agreed to settle claims from hundreds of Oregon students who say the school defrauded them.

The owners of the Business Computer Training Institute have agreed to pay $3.2 million to settle six lawsuits filed by students who attended two Oregon campuses, The Oregonian newspaper reported earlier this month.

The Oregon settlement follows a similar settlement with Washington students two years ago. The Washington students won a $13.25 million settlement in a lawsuit filed in Pierce County Superior Court.

Students in the various lawsuits claimed BCTI charged them thousands of dollars for an education that proved to be almost worthless. A News Tribune investigation published in 2006 showed:

BCTI recruited students at welfare and unemployment offices, sometimes in violation of state law. Its employees falsified admissions tests that allowed ineligible students to receive financial aid.

The school pressured its employees to meet enrollment and retention quotas, and fired them when they didn’t. It pressured teachers to keep unqualified students in class so the school could collect their financial aid.

BCTI charged $11,000 for basic computer classes that were available elsewhere for much less or even free.

Regulators were suspicious of BCTI as far back as 1993. But despite multiple threats to sanction the school, federal, state and private regulators didn’t follow through until Oregon investigators put the school on probation in February 2005.

BCTI closed all of its campuses in Washington and Oregon a month later. The school’s owners, Tom Jonez and Morrie Pigott, denied wrongdoing in court proceedings and statements to the press.

Most of the 1,300 Washington students involved in the Pierce County lawsuit received settlement checks of about $8,000. Others got about $2,700.

According to The Oregonian, more than 300 Oregon students involved in five lawsuits will split the first $3 million of the latest settlement. The remaining $200,000 would be set aside for a sixth lawsuit representing an undetermined number of other students.

A Multnomah County Circuit Court judge has scheduled a Dec. 21 hearing to approve the settlement.

David Wickert: 253-274-7341