"I was essentially a dream merchant," said James Butler Jr., 32, who earned big sales commissions and won gold plaques by selling inner-city Washington youths on the idea that they could enter lucrative professions after attending the Lacaze-Gardner School of Business for nine months.
"Most of the young people who came to Lacaze were hopeless," said Butler. "They wanted to hear someone say there was hope. They wanted someone to tell them they could learn a skill and get a good job, without knowing how to read or do simple arithmetic. I told them what they wanted to hear."
For 18 months, Butler worked as a sales representative for Lacaze-Gardner. In that time, he estimated, he signed up each month from 40 to 90 students, each of whom was charged $2,900 to attend the school for a nine-month course.
In his best months, Butler said, his earnings, mostly commissions, were the equivalent of a $60,000 annual salary. He said he was fired last month after a dispute over his attempt to get larger commissions.
Butler, who worked out of the school's main office at 710 14th St. NW., said he would do almost anything to make sure that every applicant was admitted to the school. He said this often meant that he falsified test scores and personal financial information so students could get federal aid.
"We signed up almost every person who walked through the door with some kind of financial aid," said Butler, who went to work at Lacaze in May, 1977. "If a person didn't pass the admissions test, we changed the score so that he passed.
"If their income was too high to get federal student aid, we wrote figures on the application that guaranteed them eligibility," said Butler. "Whatever needed changing, we changed it."
A spokesman for Lacaze-Gardner acknowledge yesterday that Butler had worked for the school but declined comment on the statements he made about its operations.
Butler said that when the first went to work at Lacaze, admissions employes, called "sales reps," could earn commissions of up to $85 for each student they admitted to the school. He said the commissions dropped later to about $60 per student.
Within two months after he began the job, Butler said he was admitting more students each month than any of the school's 15 other sales reps.
Occasionally, Butler said he received commission checks of nearly $4,000 a month, plus his $1,000-a-month salary. He estimated that he was generating more than $130,000 worth of business for the school. When he asked for a larger share of the profits, Butler said he was fired.
"At first I was unaware that my job would involve falsifying test scores and loan contracts," said Butler. "But it becomes quite apparent that you'll starve to death if you don't do certain things."
In one case, Butler said, a Metro bus driver who wanted to enroll at Lacaze and received a full federal grant, could not quality legally because he earned more than $16,000 a year and lived with his parents.
"I told him that he didn't qualify with the kind of income he was making," Butler said. "His father tried to talk him out of it for fear of legal repercussions. But I explained to the son that I could falsify the documents and get him into school on a grant.
"The son wanted to go that route. He paid his $50 registration fee and I signed him up."
Butler said he also obtained some students' signatures on the school's own 18 percent interest loans, rather than cheaper federal loans with between 3 and 7 percent annual interest.
"To get them to sign, I'd simply hand the student some forms and say, 'I'll need your signature here and here. And the student would sign."
"Most of the students were completely unaware that down the road they would owe $1,300, plus 18 percent interest," Butler said. "The students didn't fully realize what they had done until they received a payment book in the mail a few weeks after they dropped out of Lacaze.
"Some people might think that it's incredible that we were able to put that over on students. But bear in mind that you're dealing with a particular intelligence level. These are people who have never had anything. They maybe finished seventh, eighth or ninth grade.
"Therefore, they don't question to small print," he added. "The students figured that if they didn't like the school, they could always just drop out. And most of them did."
After a few months at Lacaze, I began to hate what I was doing," Butler said. "I was earning a lot of money, but I was destroying the futures of a lot of students. I had to justify what I was doing to my own conscience. I told myself that if I wasn't doing the job, someone would be doing it and the kids would still be getting ripped off."
Butler said he eventually began to counsel students on courses in which they could realistically expect to succeed. In some cases he said he advised students to go to other schools.
"The real pity about Lacaze is that . . there is a market for the school. Plenty of federal money is available and people who drop out of D.C. public schools don't really have any alternative.
"Most of the students who come to Lacaze really believe they are going to get a good education," Butler said. "They expect to be like the people in the television commercials who leave Lacaze and go out and get fantastic jobs.
"But it's just a dream."