SAN DIEGO, Calif. – The owner of a San Diego-area university and chain of English-language schools made her initial appearance in federal court Friday on charges that the schools served as a front for student visa fraud. This indictment followed a two-year probe by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).
Carmen Tepper, 56, of Las Vegas, the owner of the San Diego International Academy of English (SDIAE) and Southern States University (SSU), is charged in the 11-count indictment handed down last month with conspiring to defraud the U.S. government, and with making false statements in documents submitted on behalf of foreign students. The indictment also seeks the forfeiture of more than $3 million that Tepper allegedly gained through the scheme, which involved dozens of foreign students.
Also charged in the case is Tepper's parent company, Tepper Technologies, and one of Tepper's employees, Denise Mastro, 46, of San Diego. Mastro was responsible for reviewing the status of foreign students enrolled in the schools and reporting it to the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) – a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) database used to track foreign students studying in the United States.
Like Tepper, Mastro also made her initial appearance in federal court Friday. Both women are scheduled to appear in court again July 29 before U.S. District Judge Janis L. Sammartino. If convicted on all counts, the defendants face up to 15 years in prison and fines totaling $500,000.
The schools targeted in the ICE HSI investigation have multiple campuses in San Diego County and are authorized under ICE's Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) to enroll foreign students and issue I-20s, the form required for foreign nationals to obtain a student visa. Both Tepper and Mastro were authorized to certify the I-20 forms.
According to the indictment, which was unsealed Friday, the defendants falsely certified in the I-20s that the foreign students would be required to pursue a full course of study while attending SDIAE or SSU. Once the foreign nationals obtained visas and enrolled in the schools, the defendants allegedly failed to notify DHS when students were no longer complying with attendance requirements, provided they continued to pay tuition. Federal law requires foreign students to maintain a full course of study, unless they have prior approval from the school official.
As part of the investigation, ICE HSI agents, in conjunction with the State of California Premium Fraud Task Force, executed state and federal search warrants at the schools in March 2010, seizing documentary evidence from computer files and images to further their investigation.