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Senate Democrats question the role of a former for-profit college lobbyist at the Education Department

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) is among Senate Democrats who raised concerns with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos about the role of a newly hired official with ties to the for-profit college industry. (Zach Gibson/Bloomberg News)

Ten Senate Democrats are questioning the role and potential conflict of interest of a recently hired official at the U.S. Department of Education who has ties to the for-profit college industry.

Lawmakers sent Education Secretary Betsy DeVos a letter Thursday raising concerns about Diane Auer Jones. She is a former education official under George W. Bush and a former senior vice president at Career Education, a for-profit college operator. Jones, who was appointed senior policy adviser to the assistant secretary for postsecondary education in February, has also worked with for-profit colleges as a lobbyist and consultant.

Senate Democrats say those relationships color Jones’s objectivity in advising on policy and regulatory matters that affect her former employers and the for-profit industry. They are requesting detailed information about how the Education Department plans to address potential “conflicts of interest and appearances of impropriety that exist” in Jones’s role advising the agency.

Education Department spokeswoman Liz Hill said Jones is “complying with all ethics rules, and this letter is just another red herring thrown up to distract from the important work we are doing on behalf of schools and students.”

Among the concerns raised in the eight-page letter: Lawmakers say they are suspicious of Jones having the power to recommend whether the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools should be fully reinstated. The Obama administration stripped the organization of its power in December 2016, after deciding it was incapable of rectifying years of lax oversight. The organization accredited some of the biggest names in the for-profit college industry, including several once owned by Career Education, where Jones worked from 2010 to 2015.

Betsy DeVos to reconsider the fate of ousted for-profit college accreditor

A federal judge ordered the Education Department in March to review a petition for reinstatement submitted by the Accrediting Council that seeks federal recognition to serve as the gatekeeper between colleges and billions of dollars in federal financial aid.

“I have significant, specific concerns regarding Ms. Jones’ ability to oversee a derelict accreditor that has rubber-stamped the flow of federal dollars to colleges and universities that engaged in widespread fraud and abuse — the very same colleges and universities she has worked for most of her career,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), one of the 10 lawmakers who signed the letter, said in an email to The Washington Post.

In federal disclosure forms, Jones was listed as a lobbyist for Career Education at a time when the company was subject to investigations, lawsuits, enforcement actions and settlements. In 2012, nine of the company’s schools were sanctioned by one accrediting agencies for misrepresenting job placement rates, but the schools’ other accreditor — the Accrediting Council — choose not to take action. Senate Democrats questioned whether Jones pressured the council to go easy on her employer.

For-profit college fights Education Department decision to block its conversion to a nonprofit

The lawmakers said they also are wary of the senior policy adviser’s ties to the Center for Excellence in Higher Education, a Utah-based chain of career colleges that are seeking to convert from for-profit status to nonprofit for federal financial aid purposes. The Education Department in 2016 rejected the company’s bid to convert to nonprofit status. Jones served as an expert witness when the company sued the Education Department over its decision.

DeVos is reconsidering that ruling, and Senate Democrats are concerned Jones may play a role. They note that eight Center for Excellence schools were applying for accreditation through the Accrediting Council in 2016 before the organization was stripped of its power. With the possibility of the agency being reinstated, those schools may yet again try to join.

All of these “examples illustrate why it is alarming that Ms. Jones will serve as the [senior department official] in determining the final decision regarding [the Accrediting Council’s] petition for recognition,” the senators said in the letter. “Her decision will play a highly significant role in determining the regulatory and reputational environment of her former employers and clients.”

Hill, at the Education Department, bristled at the senators’ assertion that one part of Jones’s extensive career in higher education would affect her judgment. Jones also has served as a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and joined the Labor Department in November to work on an apprenticeship initiative.

“The senators fail to point out that Diane Jones has experience across all sectors of higher education, including working for a community college, an Ivy League university and a proprietary sector entity,” Hill said.

Elizabeth Warren questions the hiring of for-profit-college officials at the Education Department

This is not the first time Senate Democrats have challenged DeVos on hiring former for-profit college officials. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) inquired a year ago about the advising roles of Robert S. Eitel and Taylor Hansen. Eitel is another Career Education alumnus who also served as an attorney at Bridgepoint Education, a for-profit college operator. Hansen, a former lobbyist at the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (now called Career Education Colleges and Universities), held a temporary position at the Education Department.

DeVos also selected Julian Schmoke Jr., a former DeVry University dean with no legal or investigative expertise, to lead the student-aid enforcement unit at the Education Department. She also tapped Carlos Muniz, a corporate lawyer who has advised Career Education, as general counsel.

“Students and taxpayers deserve a consumer watchdog, not an industry lap dog,” Blumenthal said. “Instead of bolstering the Department of Education with strong consumer advocates, Secretary DeVos has surrounded herself with former for-profit college executives and a revolving door of lobbyists.”