A foreign student pursuing a doctorate in health care administration from Pleasanton-based Tri-Valley University was "interning" at a 7-Eleven in New Jersey.
Another Tri-Valley student earning a master’s in business administration was given the OK by university officials for education-related, “practical training” at a tobacco shop in Texas.
These are among the numerous student visa violations cited in a letter from federal immigration officials to Tri-Valley University founder and Pleasanton resident Susan Su documenting why her school was abruptly raided and closed in mid-January by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Meanwhile some local entities, including a Bible college, have been caught off-guard by their connections to the school and its founder and the investigation into possible immigration fraud and money laundering.
Tri-Valley University’s troubles made headlines following by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement of Su’s homes in Pleasanton and Livermore and her school offices on Boulder Court.
U.S. attorneys simultaneously filed a forfeiture complaint in U.S. District Court in San Francisco seeking to seize from Su $3.2 million of recently acquired properties that they allege were paid for with illegal proceeds from the university operation.
The called Tri-Valley a “sham university” that fraudulently granted student visas to more than 1,500 immigrants, mostly from India, who now live and work across the country and are not legitimately attending college.
Su could not be reached for comment, but in media releases and web postings she has consistently and vehemently denied any wrongdoing and staunchly defends her college’s curriculum and practices. “The ‘sham’ claim of Tri-Valley University is a true sham,” she said.
Su has not been detained, arrested or charged with any crimes, said spokesperson Virginia Kice from ICE’s Laguna Niguel offices. She said Su still has the use of and access to the targeted properties during the investigation.
Su has until Feb. 21 to appeal the university shutdown, according to a letter that was delivered to Su on Jan. 19 from ICE's school certification branch.
The 20-page document, terminating Tri-Valley University's ability to enroll foreign students, was not released to the public but is posted on the Tri-Valley University web site.
Feds Put Pleasanton Bible College Under Surveillance
Investigators’ findings of alleged misdeeds by Tri-Valley University operatives are detailed in the document, including a purported failure to update the school’s address, which, in turn, led to an area Bible college being put under federal surveillance.
David Sell, head of on Stoneridge Drive, said he was surprised when federal agents questioned him a few months ago about Su and Tri-Valley University. Sell said he told investigators that Su briefly used office space at his site when she was launching her college two years ago, but that his Bible school has no affiliation beyond that with Tri-Valley.
Unbeknownst to Sell, federal agents staked out his Stoneridge location several times last summer because that was the last address Su filed for the university, according to the ICE document.
“During their surveillance, the agents did not record one instance of this property being utilized by Tri-Valley University or its students to conduct classes,” ICE officials said in their letter to Su.
Failure to report a school’s location change is a violation of the Student Exchange and Visitor Program, the certification needed to enroll foreign students, according to ICE.
Other violations alleged by customs officials in the notice to Su include:
- The enrollment of 178 students in Tri-Valley University’s School of Medicine — which officials say did not exist when the school opened and is unapproved.
- Granting work requests for students — under the guise of research or career training —for jobs unrelated to students’ declared majors. ICE officials cited several cases of individuals claiming enrollment at Tri-Valley while working at various jobs throughout the country.
- Allowing unauthorized employees at the Boulder Court offices to access confidential immigration records.
- Inaccurate record-keeping, including registering more than 500 students as living at one apartment in Sunnyvale.
- Not providing physical classrooms, campuses or mandatory enrollment. ICE regulations require student-visa holders be enrolled as students, and they cannot take more than one online or “distance-learning” class per semester.
Federal agents said they interviewed several individuals who claimed to be Tri-Valley students, who, when pressed, admitted to never attending classes, the document said.
On the university web site, along with the letter from ICE, is a drafted rebuttal from Su to Homeland Security, addressing the government’s allegations.
In the six-page letter, Su defended her school’s instructional style of live broadcasting and streaming video, which she argued can negate the need for a traditional classroom.
This technology allows each student to “turn his/her home into a TVU classroom,” Su said in the letter.
Su added that students can view live broadcasts of classes from her Boulder Court location — a statement that may conflict with the zoning approval Su received from the City of Pleasanton.
Tri-Valley University’s zoning request, filed at the time the school moved to Boulder Court in June, was granted by city officials with the restriction that the site be used only as an office.
“No teaching or instruction is permitted at this location,” is the handwritten notation on the zoning form filed with the city’s planning division.
"City staff ascertained that office use is a permitted use in the zoning district covering Boulder Court, and consequently approved the application,” said city attorney Jonathan Lowell.
He said no zoning changes have been made to that area since the school moved there.
Before moving to the Boulder Court site, Su operated Tri-Valley University from the Pleasanton Unified School District offices, touting on her web site that she was “sharing many facilities with PUSD.”
Myla Grasso, PUSD spokesperson, confirmed Su leased office space from July 2009 to June at the district’s Bernal Avenue headquarters.
She said Su essentially rented a one-person office and her business generated some minor “foot traffic.”
Beyond the former lease arrangement, there is no connection between Tri-Valley University and Pleasanton schools, Grasso said. Su tells Homeland Security, however, that her arrangement with PUSD provided many available classrooms in addition to the administrative office.
In her letter, Su cited Tri-Valley University’s rapid growth as the cause of alleged administrative errors. She also stated that constant improvements and updates to her curriculum were made faster than she reported and that she intended to improve this lag in providing ICE with timely updates.
Su also blamed two fired employees for fraudulent enrollment activities.
ICE spokesperson Kice would not comment on whether Su had filed an appeal to reopen her school, citing the investigation.
In the letter, however, Su did not address the pending court action against five properties she purchased in 2010.
The properties eyed by the government for possible seizure are:
- An $80,000 condominium on Murrieta Boulevard in Livermore, acquired in February 2010.
- Two office suites on Boulder Court purchased in April and July for a combined $550,000.
- A 2,600-square-foot residence on Victoria Ridge Court in Pleasanton, purchased in July for $825,000.
- A $1.8 million, 6,400-square-foot home on Germano Way in the Ruby Hill golf community, acquired in December.
In an e-mailed statement to Patch, Su defended buying the real estate with the “university’s tuition income” as justifiable for her school’s operations, staff and students.
Su said that the Livermore unit is Tri-Valley University’s “school dormitory”; the Boulder Court offices are college headquarters; the Victoria Ridge home is a “staff house”; and the Ruby Hill home is the school’s “Residential Presidential House.”
The real estate was purchased with university funds, a PayPal account and Su’s personal bank accounts, according to court filings.
Many Tri-Valley students reportedly paid their tuition, $2,700 per semester, using online PayPal services, court records state.
School Scandal Draws International Attention
Tri-Valley University’s saga has drawn global attention, particularly in India. The Indian news media reports almost daily the concerns and protests over possible mistreatment, arrests or deportation of the students by U.S. officials.
More than 400 people left comments on a previous Patch story about the issue, most of them students worried about what would happen to them and asking for legal advice.
ICE spokesperson Kice confirmed that Tri-Valley University’s foreign students’ visas are cancelled but would not elaborate.
“All of those visa holders will be treated fairly under the laws of the United States with a full range of procedural protections,” she said.
Su, in her letter to Homeland Security, appealed for leniency regarding the status of her former students.
“In case the President (Obama) decides to forsake the school, these students need to transfer to (a) good university to continue their education,” she wrote.