Star Harkin witness’s testimony under fire

Jonathan Strong Jonathan Strong, 27, is a reporter for the Daily Caller covering Congress. Previously, he was a reporter for Inside EPA where he wrote about environmental regulation in great detail, and before that a staffer for Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA). Strong graduated from Wheaton College (IL) with a degree in political science in 2006. He is a huge fan of and season ticket holder to the Washington Capitals hockey team. Strong and his wife reside in Arlington.
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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.”

When Pruyn received a copy of Paoletta’s letter in December 2010, he immediately forwarded it to two lawyers from the James, Hoyer Newcomer & Smiljanich law firm, which is currently involved in four class-action lawsuits against Westwood.

One of the lawyers, Angie Moreschi, was also involved in collaborating with top Harkin aides to edit Pruyn’s written and oral testimony at the Aug. 4 hearing — along with an official from a far-left special interest group.

With Pruyn’s testimony now under fire, Moreschi helped him craft a response to Westwood’s new evidence.

Moreschi scheduled a phone call to discuss the matter with Pruyn. Then Moreschi edited a one-and-one-half-page response Pruyn was sending to Harkin, copying two key Harkin aides, Ryan McCord and Beth Stein, on the email with her edits attached.

“Josh, I think you stated your clarifications well. I’ve gone through and made some edits and moved a few sentences around,” Moreschi wrote in a December 21 email.

Moreschi’s edits generally cleaned up Pruyn’s prose, but she changed the tone and substance of his remarks in some cases. For instance, Pruyn had written “Westwood’s call records cannot verify” his testimony. Moreschi changed the sentence to read the call records “may not” verify the testimony.

She also added a sentence, “The fact that Westwood says it recently contacted Jeffrey, and they say he told them he did not recall all those he talked with is hardly confirmation that the calls did not occur, particularly given that it was more than two and a half years ago,” Moreschi wrote, according to tracked document changes.

The evidence Westwood presented, which included a series of other objections to the veracity of Pruyn’s testimony and allegations in a Government Accountability Office report also unveiled at the pivitol Aug. 4 hearing, did nothing to change Harkin’s mind about the school.

Harkin spokeswoman Justine Sessions said, “Committee staff reviewed Westwood’s letter, discussed it with all involved parties, and determined that the charges Westwood was making against Josh Pruyn did not undermine the overall credibility of his testimony. In fact, the problems Josh testified about were borne out by further investigation.”

Sessions’s statement does not say Harkin’s office determined Westwood’s evidence was incorrect, merely that it did not undermine Pruyn’s “overall credibility.”

“All too often, whistleblowers who have the courage and integrity to speak out about their experiences come under attack by the company they speak out against,” Sessions said.

Westwood is under scrutiny from numerous local, state and federal authorities. In 2009 its parent company, Alta Colleges, agreed to pay a $7 million fine to settle Justice Department allegations brought under the False Claims Act.