Joseph Cotto, 3/1/2016 [Archive]

In Defense of Trump University

By Joseph Cotto

Many accusations were hurled during last week's Republican presidential debate. The night basically boiled down to Donald Trump withstanding a barrage of jabs from Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

While several 'conservative' pundits claimed that Trump fared poorly, others begged to differ.

Bear in mind that those same pundits view conservatism as, among other things, unfettered tariff-free trade, open borders which 'enhance access' to the American Dream, employers getting fat from cheap labor (the consequence of 'enhanced access'), and seniors gaining 'economic opportunity' via privatized Social Security (their benefits being handed to Wall Street).

The Donald ran tables in post-debate polling, cementing his status as the GOP's frontrunner. Trump could well be a magnate in Teflon, let alone real estate.

Still, one of the points raised by Rubio will probably stick around for a while. It may not long be trumpeted by the habitually debt-ridden Florida Senator, seeing as his campaign is barreling down the road to nowhere. However, Democratic operatives are sure to pick up where he leaves off.

Trump University was established in 2005, not as an accredited degree-granting institution, but an educational service for aspiring business people. Extensive training was offered, and tuition ranged from $1,500 to over $35,000. Suffice it to say that TU was far from a bargain-basement affair.

The New York State Education Department took issue with Trump's institution being promoted as a university. It sent him formal notification during 2010, the same year his endeavor closed shop.

"Use of the word 'university' by your corporation is misleading and violates New York Education Law and the Rules of the Board of Regents," then-Deputy Commissioner for Higher Education Joseph Frey wrote.

Trump changed 'University' to 'Entrepreneur Initiative' and NYSED officials were satisfied. In 2011, Trump's institution was under investigation once again, this time by Eric Schneiderman, New York's attorney general.

All was silent for about two years, until Schneiderman filed a $40,000,000 lawsuit aimed at Trump and TEI.

"More than 5,000 people across the country who paid Donald Trump $40 million to teach them his hard sell tactics got a hard lesson in bait-and-switch," the Attorney General alleged. "Mr. Trump used his celebrity status and personally appeared in commercials making false promises to convince people to spend tens of thousands of dollars they couldn't afford for lessons they never got."

Schneiderman was criticized for his move. The New York Post declared him a "Democratic hit man" who zeroed in on political opponents, yet ignored his allies' impropriety. The bulk of Schneiderman's case had curtains pulled over it by a judge, but he is proceeding on what little ground remains.

Two more lawsuits were filed, each a class action from disgruntled students. Trump refuses to settle on principle.

What makes any claim against TU/TEI difficult is that students rated it positively — to the tune of 98 percent. More than 10,000 students offered their evaluation, and Trump's organization tallied their responses. Whether or not the 98 percent statistic stands accurate is far from a mystery; Trump had the actual surveys uploaded to the Internet. Allowing sunlight where there could have been shade was a brilliant tactical move.

The light of day, perhaps blinding for naysayers, reveals that some class actors initially declared approval for TU/TEI. Why did their views change? Maybe Schneiderman's civil dispute created the impression that selling a negative review was more advantageous than volunteering positive comments.

Whatever the case, Schneiderman's rigmarole testifies to how civil law, with its exceedingly low burden of proof, can be an avenue for economic and political destruction. When nothing exists to substantiate a criminal charge, civil court might provide the pit for a trial-by-fire.

This sad episode says nothing ill of Trump. Rather, it affords him opportunity to point out how his school earned astounding pupil satisfaction. Another notch in the Donald's ever-expanding belt of success.

However, litigation against TU/TEI is a cautionary tale about our country's misshapen civil justice system. If it can be used to target someone of Trump's stature, then what about everyone else?

Beware those who eagerly condemn civil defendants. Even the most innocent soul can be placed in the hot seat.

——-

Copyright 2016 Joseph Cotto, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Joseph Cotto is a historical and social journalist, and writes about politics, economics and social issues. Email him at joseph.f.cotto@gmail.com.

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