The crumbling of a little-known Pleasanton university, a story that spurred protests in India and a Hillary Clinton intervention, continues as its founder now faces criminal charges in one of the biggest student-visa fraud busts in the country.
Susan Xiao-Ping Su, 41, of Pleasanton, founder of Tri-Valley University, was after being indicted by a federal grand jury on 33 counts relating to student visa fraud, wire fraud, money laundering, alien harboring and making false statements, among other violations, according to Bay City News.
"It's certainly a significant case because of the scope and volume of money involved," said Virginia Kice, spokesperson for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices in Laguna Niguel.
Su was taken into custody without incident at her Pleasanton residence by agents with ICE Homeland Security Investigations, and then released the same day on $300,000 bond, Kice said.
While Kice hesitated to quantify or rank the Pleasanton case against other student-visa fraud cases, particularly since it's ongoing, she did acknowledge the Tri-Valley University saga is "one of the biggest" ever handled by federal agents.
In January, federal authorities shut down the school, which had a storefront on Boulder Court. Tri-Valley University catered primarily to Indian immigrants, had no real campus or classrooms, and offered a gamut of degree programs, including law, medicine and engineering, according to officials.
In court documents, federal prosecutors blasted Tri-Valley as a that netted Su millions of dollars in tuition fees from foreign students who entered the country on fraudulent student visas.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security estimated enrollment at more than 2,500 students as of December 2010, mostly student-visa-carrying foreigners, according to Su briefly posted on her school’s web site. Earlier estimates pegged foreign enrollment at 1,555.
The immigrants were not legitimate college students, but, in fact, were scattered across the country working at such places as convenience stores, retail chains and tobacco shops — jobs approved by Tri-Valley University as college internships, according to the federal documents.
Su’s recently accumulated $3.2 million of real estate drew raids in mid-January, as U.S. Attorneys allege the properties were paid for with illegal proceeds from the university operation.
Court filings state that, in less than a year, Su bought two office suites on Boulder Court, two homes in Pleasanton and a Livermore condominium using university funds, a PayPal account and her personal bank accounts. Those properties are eyed for seizure by prosecutors, who filed a forfeiture complaint in January in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.
Tri-Valley University’s students faced possible deportation after the school shut down, a scenario that outraged immigration activists, who maintained the students were innocent victims.
Secretary of State Clinton spoke and met with Indian delegates, including External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna in mid-February, to discuss Tri-Valley's travails after Indian officials repeatedly implored the U.S. to intervene and spare the students arrests or deportations.
Until Monday, Su herself had not been detained, charged or arrested and had full access to her properties, ICE officials said.
Su launched Tri-Valley in 2008, first in borrowed space at a Stoneridge Drive Bible college, then from a rented office at Pleasanton Unified School District headquarters, before moving to the office complex on Boulder Court in April 2010.
On Su’s business and networking sites, she lists herself as a native of China, with a master’s degree in engineering earned in 1997 from the University of California, Davis, and a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2001. She also lists herself as president and founder of a semiconductor integration firm based in Pleasanton since 2003.
While Su declined interview requests, she staunchly defended herself and her university in previous emails and postings on her website.
She wrote that Tri-Valley University was a Christian-based learning institution and “the world’s first university capable of TV live broadcasting (of) every class meeting with video, audio, desk-top sharing, chatting, document sharing, dial-in, recording features.”
Su said the real sham was the government accusations, not her school. “The ‘sham’ investigation causes ‘earthquake’ damages to the university,” she wrote.
Diploma-mill stories often pepper the news, including a 2010 Florida case that, at the time, was hailed as the biggest student visa fraud bust on record. The case involved a Miami language school that granted phony student visas to 600 immigrants during its years of operations, according to ICE officials.
The owner of the language school received 15 months in prison and forfeited $600,000 of property and cash after pleading guilty to visa fraud, according to news reports.