Star Harkin witness’s testimony under fire

Josh Pruyn, a former recruiter for the for-profit online Westwood College, told senators during a pivotal hearing in 2010 about high-pressure sales tactics he said his former employer used to entice potential students to enroll.

“I began to realize that many of the things I accepted and told people on the phone about Westwood were based on falsehoods,” Pruyn said, recounting his path to quitting the company in disillusionment.

The hearing — and Pruyn’s testimony — provided significant political momentum to the push for strict new regulations on the for-profit or “career” colleges, finalized June 2 by the Obama administration. But documents obtained by The Daily Caller raise questions about whether Pruyn’s testimony was itself the source of falsehoods.

In one key episode, Pruyn testified that he was instructed to pressure a student, “Jeffrey,” to remain enrolled, even though the student had just been called to active military duty by the Army Reserves.

Jeffrey was “completely unable” to keep attending Westwood, Pruyn testified, but Pruyn’s boss was “furious” at the news. She “ordered me to call him back,” Pruyn said, and “I spoke to Jeffrey again for more than an hour and reached the same conclusion. My director then had my assistant director call Jeffrey and, not surprisingly, he reached the same conclusion:  Jeffrey was simply unable to go to school with his schedule. But my director still wasn’t satisfied. She called him and tried to pressure him for yet another hour.”

At issue, according to Pruyn’s testimony, was profit. Specifically, students needed to stay enrolled for 14 days for Westwood to obtain access to those students’ federal loan dollars. “Fourteen was the magic number,” Pruyn testified.

But Westwood officials say they have evidence disproving Pruyn’s testimony.

In a Dec. 17, 2010, letter, the school’s lawyer told Sen. Tom Harkin, at whose hearing Pruyn testified, that Westwood uses a system to record its recruiters’ phone calls.

“Westwood College Online uses a system called CosmoCom, which allows for the recording and retrieval of inbound and outbound calls,” Mark Paoletta, a partner at Dickstein Shapiro with ten years of experience running investigations for Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in the letter. “Contrary to Mr. Pruyn’s testimony, there is no evidence that Mr. Pruyn’s supervisors spoke to the student [‘Jeffrey’] after the term began.”

According to Pruyn’s testimony, Jeffrey received four phone calls from three Westwood officials, and possibly a fifth phone call from a fourth person as well.

Westwood’s recordings of the phone calls show differently. The records show Pruyn spoke with Jeffrey for 55 minutes on one occasion, “concerning his request to withdraw,” Paoletta said in the letter, and briefly on the next day when Pruyn called the student back and “asked [Jeffrey] if the director had called him regarding his decision to withdraw and the student responded that she had not.

“When contacted recently, the student remembered Mr. Pruyn asking a lot of questions about his reasons for leaving Westwood, but that the questions did not seem aggressive. He also did not remember speaking with anyone else concerning his decision to withdraw from Westwood.

“The student apparently felt that he was being treated fairly, because he told a Westwood employee during a brief call … prior to speaking with Mr. Pruyn that Westwood would be the first college he considered when he was able to enroll in school again,” Paoletta said in the letter.

In an interview, Pruyn stuck by his testimony, saying he distinctly remembered his boss calling Jeffrey on a work phone, a phone call that should have been recorded in Westwood’s records.

“I remember it very clearly,” Pruyn said, “the only thing that bothered me about it is why the student didn’t remember it. I don’t know why he wouldn’t have remembered.”