Peralta’s Nigerian Scam

The community college district is playing hardball over registration fees for an international student program that crashed and burned.

At one point or another, we’ve all opened our e-mail boxes to find a Nigerian e-mail scam. You know, the ones that promise you will share in hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in return for making a cash payment up-front. Well, an Oakland resident of Nigerian descent says he’s been a victim of a scam, but in this case it was perpetrated by officials from the Peralta Community College District.

Lazarus Agbowo, an Oakland tax preparer, says that Peralta officials launched a program in 2004 designed to bring Nigerian students to the United States for college in exchange for thousands of dollars in up-front fees. Agbowo, hoping to help students from his homeland, decided to sponsor two of them to attend Vista Community College in Berkeley, now known as Berkeley City College. The program was to be part of the college district’s international student program. The only problem was that Peralta’s Nigerian program never got off the ground, and the college district is now refusing to refund $14,600 in fees that Agbowo says he paid. He’s suing Peralta for fraud.

This is more than just a tale of one man battling a large, unresponsive public agency. Public records and interviews show that Peralta’s alleged Nigerian scam also raises serious questions about the college district’s hiring practices and how it handles its finances. And at the center of it all was a high-ranking college administrator, James P. Garrett, who was hired by the district to run the international student program in spite of his criminal background, and then was allowed to retire with full benefits after the Nigerian program tanked.

The story began about four years ago when Peralta decided to expand its international student program to West Africa. Over the years, the program had sparked controversy after a San Francisco Chronicle investigation in 2001 revealed that top Peralta officials had spent at least $167,000 in public funds in the late 1990s on extravagant trips to China, staying at posh hotels and dining at upscale restaurants. Peralta officials repeatedly defended the junkets as recruiting expeditions, noting that the international student program is a cash cow for the district because foreign students pay huge registration fees.

According to Agbowo, Peralta officials, led by Garrett, spread word throughout the Bay Area Nigerian community in late 2004 that they wanted to bring students from the African nation to Peralta. College officials then dispatched Garrett to Lagos, Nigeria, to arrange for student visas, and eventually American sponsors agreed to pay the college fees for sixty students, Agbowo said. According to court documents, the sponsors paid Peralta $12,300 per student.

However, when the students showed up at the US Consulate in Lagos, they were denied visas. Agbowo said they were never told why the students were denied, and to make matters worse, the female students were arrested for allegedly being prostitutes — a charge he said was completely bogus. “You see,” he said, “in Nigeria, they can allege anything.”

In an interview, Peralta Chancellor Elihu Harris, the former mayor of Oakland, said that after the incident he spoke to the US Consulate and was told that the State Department had grave concerns about fraud in the Nigerian student visa program. He said State Department officials were convinced that Nigerians were using the program as a way to get into the United States, but then would never show up in college classrooms.

After the students were turned away in Lagos, most of the American sponsors then pulled out of the program and demanded their money back. The college district started cutting refund checks. Agbowo’s Oakland attorney, Charles Emeziem, who also hails from Nigeria, said the college district refunded fees to another one of his clients last year. But Agbowo didn’t want to give up on the program, so he agreed to continue to sponsor two students, Damian Ogwu and Fidelis Ogbu. Once the US Consulate denied their visas a second time, Agbowo said he finally asked Peralta for his $24,600.

But after meeting with top Peralta officials, including Harris, Agbowo said they would only refund him $10,000 and refused to repay the rest. He said Vice Chancellor Jacob Ng told him that they only had a record of him paying Peralta $10,000 and they didn’t know where the other $14,600 went. He said the district’s general counsel, Thuy Nguyen, told him that Peralta had launched an investigation into Garrett.

Garrett did not return two phone calls seeking comment for this story. For his part, Agbowo doesn’t think Garrett did anything wrong and blames Peralta officials for not refunding all of his money. But why would Peralta give full refunds to other sponsors, and not Agbowo?

Harris said he did not want to “try the case in the press.” But he said there were questions as to whether Agbowo actually paid the total $24,600 as he claimed, and if he did, whether $14,600 of that money went to Garrett and not Peralta.

After the program flopped, Harris removed Garrett from his job as Peralta’s director of the East Bay Center for International Trade Development. But the chancellor didn’t fire him. Instead, he allowed Garrett to become a college instructor. The move angered the teachers’ union because Peralta officials put Garrett at the top of the union’s pay scale at a salary of $100,000 a year, according to Debra Weintraub, president of the Peralta Federation of Teachers.

More over, Garrett’s cushy new position didn’t actually require him to teach. In the end, however, it didn’t matter, because Garrett called in sick on the very first day of his new job in August 2007, and then went on worker’s compensation leave. He never again returned to work before Harris allowed the 65-year-old administrator to retire in April 2008 with full lifelong health benefits.

That might have been the end of it, if Garrett hadn’t actually continued to work even while on worker’s compensation leave. It turns out that Garrett also is an attorney, and court records show that he represented a client in federal court in Oakland while he was supposedly too sick or injured to work at Peralta. Harris told Full Disclosure that he was not aware of this.

It’s not the first time Garrett appears to have run afoul of the law. State records show that his attorney’s license was suspended in 1997 after he misappropriated client funds, illegally comingled client funds with his personal funds, stole $41 worth of compact discs, and bounced four checks totaling more than $7,000 from one of his client’s accounts. So how did Garrett get such a high-ranking job at Peralta with a background like that? Harris said he was unaware of Garrett’s history, and that Garrett had been hired before he became chancellor in 2003.

Garrett’s troubles didn’t end when he retired from Peralta. Last fall, he was sued by another client, who alleges that he convinced her to take $150,000 of equity out of her home and to invest it another home that he now lives in. According to court documents, Nobantu Ankoanda also alleges that Garrett then refinanced the new home with two of his friends, sucked the equity out of the house, and pocketed the proceeds. According to her lawsuit, which is making its way through the courts, he’s now refusing to repay her the $150,000 she’s owed.

So did Garrett make off with Agbowo’s student registration fees? Agbowo’s attorney, Emeziem, said they hope to solve that mystery when the case goes to trial. But Peralta officials don’t appear eager to let that happen. The district’s lawyers are attempting to have the case thrown out of court. If they’re successful, Agbowo may never learn what happened to his money or who was really responsible for the Peralta Nigerian scam.

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