Mizzou, Western Iowa Tech face racketeering lawsuits stemming from foreign student recruitment efforts

Two lawsuits filed in January against Western Iowa Tech Community College and the University of Missouri allege that the colleges violated the RICO Act of 1970.

WITCC allegedly placed exchange students in jobs that were not related to their fields of study and expected them to work full-time to pay off “debt” to the college.

Mizzou allegedly violated its agreement, breaking copyright laws, in its dealings with a partner involved in a program for international students.

Two separate public American universities are facing lawsuits under the U.S. Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, for alleged violations surrounding foreign student recruitment.

Several students at Western Iowa Tech Community College filed a lawsuit against the school on January 11 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, referencing 11 students from Brazil and Chile as plaintiffs. There are nearly a dozen defendants listed, including Western Iowa Tech Community College, J&L Staffing and Recruiting, Inc., J&L Enterprises, Inc., and Royal Canin USA. 

The lawsuit alleged that Western Iowa Tech Community College, along with J&L staffing, brought students from South American countries under the guise of an exchange program only to push those students into factory labor jobs that did not contribute to educational growth. 

The students were allegedly recruited for a two-year degree program in Culinary Arts or Robotics while being promised free room and board. The defendants allegedly then changed the two-year program into a one-year program, expecting the students to work 40 hours a week to pay off “debt."   

Civil rights lawyer Roxanne Conlin told U.S.News & World Report, “It appears to us the documents are very clear what promises were made. It’s also clear that they never had any kind of program to teach these students robotics or the culinary arts. They worked at a pet food manufacturing company on the line.”      

[RELATED: STUDY: Fewer foreign students in American colleges for first time in over 10 years]

The jobs at which students worked included Royal Canin pet food plant and Tur-Pak foods, a company that packs food products in Sioux, South Dakota. 

Western Iowa Tech President Terry Murrell is the first defendant name listed. He joined the college in 2007 and was selected by the Board of Directors in 2010 to become the college’s third president.  

The University of Missouri is facing a similar lawsuit, which was filed on Jan. 19 by a former business partner with the nature of the suit listed as “470 Civil RICO Actions.”  

An initial suit filed against the school in 2019 was dismissed in November. 

The University of Missouri partnered with a firm in St. Lucia called High School Servicos Educacionais, (HSE) which organized students who would go on to earn an American high school diploma through MU’s program, as the Kansas City Star reported

The university and HSE signed an agreement in 2015 to partner in the marketing of Mizzou online high school classes to dozens of high schools in Brazil and other South American countries through a program called Mizzou K-12 or Mizzou Academy.

[RELATED: 'Largest,' 'wealthiest' US colleges fail to report billions from foreign entities: report]

Mizzou recruited thousands of students in South America to its high school program, promising each one a spot as a student on the campus in Missouri upon graduating.  The university reportedly made good on that promise to fewer than a dozen students, however. 

Then in 2019, due to financial reasons, Mizzou decided to cut ties with HSE. But before doing so, the school allegedly plagiarized HSE's manual. 

A Jan. 4, 2019 internal email from University of Missouri College of Education’s Chief Business Development Officer Tanya Haeussler, stated, “One of the documents we will need to present to Brazil schools after the flip is a new 2019 MK12 Operations Manual that takes out HSE’s involvement. THIS IS HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL ... go through the entire document and make sure any changes that are needed are included, including removing all HSE references.”

[RELATED: MSU 'eliminates' the terms 'foreign' and 'alien']

The new lawsuit alleges that IEA and university officials committed “criminal acts” of violating federal copyright and trade secret laws and violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

The first defendant listed is Mun Choi, President of the University System, along with nine University of Missouri curators, as well as seven members of IEA, LLC. 

Kenneth Caldwell, attorney for High School Servicos Educacionais, LTDA, told Campus Reform that “the dismissal of the original lawsuit was for lack of federal jurisdiction and had nothing to do with the merits of the case.” He also explained that “after [they] filed the original lawsuit the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Allen v. Cooper which clarified that a state (or an arm of the state like a University) cannot be sued for copyright infringement in federal court even though the copyright statute allows it.” 

Neither WITCC nor Mizzou responded to requests for comment in time for publication. 

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