Scandal at The Washington Post: Fraud, Lobbying & Insider Trading
By: Rusty Weiss
Accuracy in Media
In the summer of 2010, business columnist for The Washington Post Steven Pearlstein lifted the veil on the little-known company operating procedure that involves an incestuous relationship between his own employer, and the scandal-plagued, for-profit university known as Kaplan. In his column, Pearlstein made the argument that while personnel in the newsroom may have nothing to do with Kaplan, they most certainly have “benefited from its financial success.”
So what is it about Kaplan that has been so beneficial to Post employees? Aside from being one of the largest for-profit colleges in the country, Kaplan is not only a subsidiary of The Washington Post, up until recently it has been the single most profitable aspect of the company. In 2009, the year prior to the Pearlstein article, Kaplan accounted for 58% of the Post’s revenue and generated the bulk of company profits, while newspaper and magazine publishing—in other words, journalism—accounted for a mere 19% of revenue and operated in the red. In 2010, Barron’s estimated that the value of The Washington Post company was roughly $8.5 billion, and that Kaplan represented about $5 billion. So it was no surprise when Pearlstein stated that Kaplan “has provided the handsome profits that have helped to cover this newspaper’s operating losses.”
With a financial resumé like that, and status as the cash cow keeping the Post afloat, why wouldn’t CEO Don Graham be singing the praises of Kaplan University? Perhaps because there is a longstanding history of allegations of fraudulent practices, with hundreds of millions of dollars of profits diverted to Kaplan executives. Perhaps it’s also Kaplan’s generation of such profit on the backs of poor students and returning war veterans, preying on their vulnerabilities only to later reward them with degrees of questionable value, massive student-loan debt, and little employment opportunity. Perhaps it is Kaplan’s curious hiring of lobbyists to influence legislation at the state and federal levels, including a former Obama staffer, Anita Dunn, just as the heat was being turned up on for-profit colleges to rein in out-of-control practices.
Whatever the reasons, Kaplan remains part of an industry that provides little educational value for its students—and raises many questions about how it has compromised the integrity of The Washington Post newspaper.
In 2010, Bloomberg investigative reporter Daniel Golden relayed the story of Keith Melvin, a disabled Iraq War veteran who had been awarded a medal for “outstanding dedication to duty.” Upon returning home from his tour of duty, Melvin sought to pursue collegiate studies in the legal field. He performed an online search, filled out forms, and was eventually contacted by Kaplan University. The university convinced Melvin that it could further his educational pursuits through a litany of phone calls and e-mails, pressuring him to commit. One selling point that sealed the deal? Kaplan’s relationship with the prestigious Washington Post Company.
“With Kaplan having its credentials backed by The Washington Post, I thought, ‘How can this go wrong?’” Melvin said. “It sounded too good to be true, and it was.”
A former admissions adviser for Kaplan explained how The Washington Post was used in their sales pitch to prospective students.
“One of the things that I always said was, ‘As you may know, Kaplan is owned by The Washington Post, a paper known for having really high ethics,’ he said. ‘As you can imagine, The Washington Post would never involve itself in anything that would reflect poorly on its reputation.’”
But the prestige and high ethics promised by a relationship with the Post never materialized. Melvin learned the hard way, as have other students, that the Kaplan experience consists of “high prices, uneven performance and shady marketing practices.” Worse, the university, for all of its selling points, has a dropout rate of nearly 70%, and those who do graduate earn well below the national average for college graduates—outcomes not exactly befitting of a money-making juggernaut and its supposedly ethical parent company.
Unfortunately, Melvin’s experience is not an isolated incident. Targeting and recruiting veterans is such a common practice among for-profit colleges that it prompted Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois to introduce legislation which would eliminate the financial incentive for these colleges to aggressively recruit veterans into pricey programs. A report in the Chicago Tribune explains that “military veterans are being aggressively recruited… because of their lucrative forms of federal aid, such as GI Bill funds and Department of Defense tuition assistance benefits.” Such funds are not bound by the 90/10 rule, which bars the for-profits from deriving more than 90 percent of their revenue from the Department of Education’s federal student-aid programs.
Veteran enrollment helps Kaplan circumvent the 90/10 rule, because GI Bill benefits don’t count as government assistance under the law. Congress further aided the for-profit industry by granting a $2,000 exemption per student to the 90/10 rule. Kaplan reported that it “got less than 87.5 percent of its receipts from federal student grants and loans in the fiscal year ended Jan. 3, 2010,” just short of the 90% cap. Putting a cap on this source of federal money means placing a limit on the university’s ability to generate revenue. As it stands, the 90/10 limit threatens access to billions of dollars in federal student aid in the for-profit industry.
While Kaplan targets and recruits veterans, in particular because of the federal funding opportunities, it certainly doesn’t restrict questionable tactics to these students. The student complaint board on their website shows over 130 current complaints by students at the college, ranging from general fraud, to misappropriation of funds, to “ignorant service.”
In 2009, The Wall Street Journal reported on seven Kaplan campuses which had a three-year dropout rate over 30%, a clear indication that the university had been using aggressive marketing tactics to enroll students regardless of their ability to pay. Meanwhile, most students who do graduate discover that the grandiose promises of careers and large salaries were merely a sales ploy—and in fact, the product offered by Kaplan has substantially less value than that offered by traditional public and private colleges.
A report from a leading for-profit research company explains that such universities are little more than “marketing firms who happen to market education.” A recent shareholder lawsuit against The Washington Post and its CEO Donald Graham was dismissed in December 2011 after the Post filed a motion to dismiss (pages 47-53). The lawsuit had alleged that the Post defrauded investors by engaging in deceptive and unethical business practices. The lawsuit was tossed, shockingly enough, because the motion to dismiss argued that the unethical practices were common knowledge, and therefore investors had not been misled. The Post essentially admitted that Kaplan had been running little more than a telemarketing scheme. In that filing, the Post stated that it was ‘no secret’ that the Kaplan Higher Education Corporation (KHE) operated under a business model that “depended upon the recruitment of low-income and minority students who were dependent upon federal loans and grants.” The Post concurred that the KHE was operating “football field sized call centers that made use of telemarketing techniques and sales goals.”
Marketing materials at Kaplan University show the depths to which recruiters were required to sink:
“If you can help them uncover their true pain and fear. If you get the prospect to think about how tough their situation is right now, if you talk about the life they can’t give their family right now because they don’t have a degree,” the flier instructs, “…You dramatically increase your chances of enrolling this prospective student. Get to their emotions, and you will create the urgency!”
With a university whose singular goal is to meet quarterly sales quotas by targeting low-income, minority, and veteran students, regardless of their ability to pay, it’s no wonder Kaplan’s business model results in consistent failure to serve the students they claim to help, along with consistently low graduation rates, high number of loan defaults, and a high level of dissatisfaction.
Up until 2011, for-profit colleges had seen consistent double-digit growth in annual revenues, extracted from a litany of federal grants and loan programs under the Title IV program. The industry has been generating billions of dollars of revenue through predatory business practices akin to those in the subprime mortgage industry.
For-profit universities earn money off the backs of service men and women, minorities, and low-income targets (some instances have recruiters seeking out prospective students in homeless shelters), with promises of government loans and grants, and post-graduation employment. At the same time, these colleges are using revenues obtained from the federal government to lobby politicians and weaken regulation. Politicians, backed by corporate influence, have facilitated the transfer of tens of billions of dollars of public funds to these schools in the form of federal grants and loan programs. The result is a staggering level of profit with little of value provided to students or taxpayers.
So when a school like Kaplan pulls in billions of dollars, who has benefited the most? The very people who are perpetuating the money-making scheme—the executives.
Between 2003 and 2008, executives at Kaplan received stock option payouts of $289 million dollars—nearly half of the school’s entire operating income during the same time frame., In 2003, Kaplan handed over $119 million in executive pay, more than double the university’s operating income that year, which came in at $58 million.
Nowhere is such lavish compensation more personified than with the case of Jonathan Grayer, former head of the Kaplan education unit, who resigned in 2008. Grayer’s resignation, after 17 years at the school, resulted in a $76 million severance package. The package included a $20 million bonus paid out in November of 2011, more than the university’s entire third quarter operating income of $18 million.
Meanwhile, The Washington Post, which reported over $6 million in losses during that same quarter, closed a majority of regional news bureaus, and was charged by The Washington Post Guild with “unjustly laying off employees and targeting employees of color.”,, Recently, they announced the buyout of up to 48 newsroom staff as a cost-cutting measure.
More importantly, under Grayer’s direction, Kaplan and the Post have been involved in the aforementioned shareholders lawsuit, more than a dozen whistleblower lawsuits, and have been the focus of multiple state and federal investigations.
It can therefore be concluded that the Post did not reward Grayer based on academic performance, but rather on his ability to generate revenue for the company—ignoring the ethical quandary that his leadership created.
Last summer, The New York Times reported that the Department of Education and Congress had placed Kaplan and other for-profit institutions under the microscope, because of their recruiting practices and high loan-default rates. The Education Department issued final regulations which will go into effect next July, “requiring career college programs to better prepare students for ‘gainful employment’ or risk losing access to the federal student aid that, on average, provides more than 85 percent of their revenue.”
Further regulatory efforts will take effect in 2014, but will provide little protection for low- income students to avoid being shackled with unaffordable debt that cannot be discharged through bankruptcy. In fact, the 2014 regulations instituted by the Department of Education allow for schools like Kaplan to continue generating funds off the backs of students and taxpayers, allowing colleges to have a loan default rate of up to 40% in any one year, and up to 30% over 3 years.
Lobbying Against Regulation
Despite the announcement of weak regulatory measures, recent years have seen bi-partisan support in Congress against such regulations, and overall support for the controversial industry. The list of high-profile names that support these for-profit organizations include presidential candidates Ron Paul and Mitt Romney, Speaker of the House John Boehner, Dianne Feinstein, Jesse Jackson, and Nancy Pelosi., Last year, Pelosi broke rank with her party and voted to keep billions of dollars in federal student aid flowing into the coffers of for-profit colleges. Boehner backed deregulation of the online learning industry, supporting the removal of a law known as the 50 Percent Rule back in 2006, eliminating legislation that had protected students by limiting how many could enroll in online courses. The rule was actually put in place back in 1992 in an attempt to curb waste and abuse of federal student aid programs by for-profit colleges. Repealing the 50% rule opened up the floodgates for online enrollment, allowing these colleges to acquire further capital from Wall Street for expansion.
The Obama administration has attempted to rein in for-profit colleges by imposing tighter regulations and limiting the role of private companies in student lending. They vowed to stop for-profit colleges from luring students with false promises. A New York Times article described it as “an opening volley that shook the $30 billion industry” where “officials proposed new restrictions to cut off the huge flow of federal aid to unfit programs.”
However, opposition to such regulations has continued to be an across-the-aisle effort, with Democrats and Republicans alike having accepted funds from such institutions, while simultaneously advocating on their behalf, ignoring the ongoing threat to veterans and low-income students.
Kaplan in particular has come under fire from liberal Democrats and the administration itself, for allegedly conning students into taking out federal loans for a mostly worthless education. During The Washington Post Company’s annual meeting in 2011, Chairman Donald E. Graham acknowledged that his company had been hurt by congressional hearings and negative publicity over Kaplan’s controversial business practices. Representatives of stockholders have been repeatedly asking about the future of the company if profits are further cut by government regulation, with some suggesting that the Post may try to sell Kaplan in order to avoid further losses.
So what does one do when their billion-dollar cash cow is threatened? Lobby lawmakers to water down regulations on your behalf, of course.
While Graham refused to name any members of the House or Senate that he had personally lobbied during the annual meeting, there is little doubt that the Post has pulled out all of the stops in order to survive financially and stall regulations that would affect Kaplan. Graham called scrutiny of for-profit colleges an “unusual situation,” and assured shareholders that Kaplan had changed its ways in an attempt to prevent students from being saddled with too much debt, and nothing to show for it. Such lobbying hasn’t been limited to Graham’s speeches at shareholder meetings.
Roll Call had reported last year that “…Kaplan University, which is owned by the Washington Post Co., paid $110,000 to Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in the first quarter of this year to lobby on the issue and $90,000 to Ogilvy Government Relations.” At the end of 2011, funds directed to lobbying efforts were at their highest level ever for The Washington Post, topping out at $1 million, including a final tally of $210,000 to Akin, Gump et al, and $180,000 to Ogilvy.
Source: Open Secrets Blog
Cliff Kincaid of Accuracy in Media reported on the ties between these lobbying firms and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle:
“Vic Fazio, a former Democratic Congressman from California, is a leader on the Akin Gump team, while GOP operative Wayne Berman leads the Ogilvy effort. The Washington Post Co. has also retained the Democrat- connected firm of Elmendorf Ryan to make its case.”
When adding in Elmendorf Ryan’s $160,000, over half-a-million dollars was spent on three major lobbying firms, with the singular goal of easing federal regulations related to Kaplan’s questionable business practices.
The Post, however, ramped up its lobbying efforts with the hiring of former White House communications director, and good friend to President Obama, Anita Dunn. Dunn played a key role in shaping the Kaplan message that abuse and misconduct were not industry-wide, while aiming to “blunt the impact” of the proposed regulations. She assured The New York Times that, while she has visited the White House roughly 80 times since her departure, she did not speak to colleagues about the issue.
A major target of the Post and other education companies’ lobbying efforts has been the so-called “gainful employment” rules—rules that seek to tie the cost of higher education programs to the amount of money a graduate can expect to earn and loan repayment rates.
The resolution was designed to reduce the number of higher education loans that are going into default. Youth Today reported that in the first quarter of 2011 alone, “The Washington Post and its subsidiary Kaplan Inc. spent a total of $490,000 on lobbying, including paying five different lobbying firms,” focusing specifically on the gainful employment rules. The New York Times reported that the Post had spent a whopping $1.6 million in lobbying Congress on the gainful employment regulations alone. Bloomberg reported that, “publication of that rule was delayed last year, following a lobbying effort by for-profit colleges.”
Donald Graham even took the unusual step of writing an editorial for The Wall Street Journal, which urged the White House to change the rules to “avoid disaster for low-income students.” A mere two months later, Graham threatened to impose his own disaster upon these same students, attempting to bully Congress into modifying the 90/10 rule, warning that he was willing to raise tuition rates on the financially struggling student body if they did not comply.
In the end, efforts to rein in regulations on the Kaplan money machine were successful and the threat of a major crackdown posed by the gainful employment rules had been averted after lobbying by Washington insiders. On June 2nd, rules handed down by the Department of Education had been significantly weakened.
The Times described it as such:
“…after a ferocious response that administration officials called one of the most intense they had seen, the Education Department produced a much-weakened final plan that almost certainly will have far less impact as it goes into effect next year.”
Millions From Insider Trading
In the summer of ’09, The Wall Street Journal did an exposé on for-profit colleges and their default rates, which featured the following statement:
“For-profit schools are favorite targets of short-sellers, or investors who try to profit on bets that stocks will fall, and many have focused on default rates. For-profit schools receive more than $16 billion annually in federal student aid, and taxpayers are on the hook for loan losses.”
And with the recent victory at the lobbying table, the Graham family itself benefited after they had successfully kept their money-making machine intact.
In the days after the Obama administration announced a watered down version of the gainful employment regulations, stocks in every publicly traded college corporation rose, with some soaring in gains by over 20%. The message had been delivered—significantly weakened regulations would have little bearing on the industry’s profitability.
Armed with the knowledge that Kaplan’s stock rose after the regulation package was introduced, Post Chairman Donald Graham, sold off 24,000 shares in trusts benefitting family members, totaling $12 million. The timing raised eyebrows but the reasons seem clear, as Washington Post Company stock had jumped 9% immediately following reports of the new regulations, while settling back to near-average prices shortly thereafter.
More curious was Graham’s insistence three months after the stock sales that “I have not sold a share of Washington Post Company stock in over 30 years nor has any trust for my benefit.” While the June selloff was not for Graham’s personal benefit, he did perform the transaction on behalf of his family’s trust.
As for the family stock selloff, Graham explains that, “I am also a trustee of several trusts for the benefit of other members of my family. From time to time, these family members who also started out life heavily concentrated in Post stock have asked their trustees to sell stock when, for example, they want to buy a house.”
But the claim of sporadic stock sales for occasional large purchases simply doesn’t ring true. The Graham family has a history of multimillion dollar stock sales over the past four years, in which several of the transactions mimicked the post-regulation stock sale, with prices plummeting after the selloff. For instance:
- In April and May of 2008, the Graham family sold $29 million in stock at an average of roughly $675 per share, and within days the price dropped to $585 per share. (Chart A)
- In August and September of that same year, the Graham family sold another $14 million in stock, then watched the stock price plummet from $600 per share to $400 per share. (Chart A)
- The aforementioned stock sale of $12 million this past summer was at a cost of $420 per share, dropping 100 points three weeks later, when quarterly reports showed a decline in yearly income of 50%. (Chart B)
- Publisher Katharine Weymouth—who is Don Graham’s niece—sold $45,000 in stock in June of 2011.
Chart A. Source: Market Watch, Wall Street Journal
Chart B. Source: Market Watch, Wall Street Journal
Additionally, according to a Daily Censored report last year, $20 million in sales were allegedly executed on behalf of Don Graham’s ex-wife’s in April of 2008.
Considering the Graham family’s apparent ability to predict major drop-offs in the company’s stock, one has to wonder about the legality of what appears to be insider trading taking place. At best, Donald Graham has not been honest in telling the media that the family only sells stock when it comes time to buy a house. They sell when they see the most potential for profit. With the post-regulatory stock sale, it is clear that the Graham family prospered by dropping stock immediately after the regulations were announced, possibly with knowledge in hand that future reports would show a year over year income drop of 50%.
Insider knowledge of Kaplan’s business performance, and The Washington Post stock value has been incredibly beneficial to the Graham family.
The Washington Post has seen a decline in newspaper circulation and journalistic business that they have been almost solely reliant on the success of their cash generating education business, Kaplan University. Chairman of the Post Company Don Graham has willfully turned a blind eye to allegations of fraudulent business practices, excessive student debt and hardship, and exorbitant executive compensation at the for-profit college. At the same time, Graham has actively engaged in lobbying to help generate profits on the backs of the very students he claims to serve, and also engaged in suspicious stock trading that has greatly benefited his family.
Even worse, The Washington Post remains a supposedly reputable staple of the mainstream print media, while refusing to report on one of its own despite media coverage from many other sources. The Post’s failure to report nearly all adverse news about Kaplan even prompted its former Ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, to write a piece which argued that the “Post needs to beef up its coverage of allegations against Kaplan.”
Any company, such as Kaplan, that has been subject to so many government investigations and lawsuits, would be reported on by most responsible news organizations. Why does the Post bury its head in the sand on the Kaplan story, and is Graham personally responsible for suppressing such information?
It’s a question The Washington Post has yet to answer.
* Rusty Weiss has appeared on Fox News, and has been published by The American Thinker, The Daily Caller, and Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government and Journalism websites. He currently runs a nationally recognized blog called The Mental Recession.
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