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AG Healey discusses $1 million Mildred Elley settlement, national abortion rights, political plans


Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey announced a more than $1 million settlement today with a for-profit school with locations in Pittsfield, Albany, and New York City. Mildred Elley, which has a campus at 100 West Street in downtown Pittsfield, was accused by Healey of practicing high-pressure enrollment tactics and deceiving prospective students. In a statement, the for-profit institution said that the allegations have been addressed since emerging primarily in 2016 and 2017, and that the agreement includes no admission of wrongdoing on its part. WAMC spoke with the Democrat this afternoon, about the settlement, what it means for the for-profit education industry, her national efforts to oppose restrictive abortion laws, and her political future.

HEALEY: We know that pursuing a higher education is a big decision for families, and it requires a significant financial investment. And that's why it's important that schools, particularly our for-profit schools, comply with the rules. What we allege here is that Mildred Elley wasn't doing that. They were using high pressure sales tactics to pressure people into attending school, and then when they were in school, they were failing to give them proper information and access to programs, they failed to make proper disclosure about their programs, and there were all sorts of issues. And so today, as the result of our investigation, we secured more than a million dollars in relief for students from the Mildred Elley School. They're going to be required to pay back $600,000 that will get distributed to eligible students. And they will also discharge – or get rid of, in other words – over $420,000 in debts owed by Mildred Elley students. It's about fairness, it's about protecting our students, and we're pleased with today's announcement.

WAMC: In your press release, you mentioned previous settlements with Bay State College and the Jolie Hair and Beauty Academy for similarly allegedly unfair and deceptive practices. Can you compare and contrast how the Mildred Elley example stacks up to examples like that?

It’s similar to other cases that we've brought where we alleged that these for-profit schools are out there not playing fair and square. They are misleading their programming, they are being deceptive to students and prospective students about the kinds of programs that they're offering. And this is really causing students harm. I mean, unfortunately, with a lot of these institutions that we've gone after is situations where students have taken on boatloads of debt to try to get a degree, to try to get a certificate, only to show up to the program and learn that the program is not what it purported to be. And not only are these students now left with boatloads of debt, they actually end up with no degree or no certificate or a degree that's worthless. And this is again about protecting students who are vulnerable. And unfortunately, we've seen just far too rampant abuse in the space of for-profit schools. But what we resolved today is very similar to some of the other recent investigations that we've resolved which truly have been about unfair and misleading and deceptive statements to prospective students.

Now, in a statement from the school, they draw attention to the fact that the agreement includes – and I'm quoting here – “no admission of any wrongdoing and avoids a lengthy and costly proceeding.” Can you speak to that? Because it sort of sounds like what you're talking about sounds like some form of wrongdoing.

Well, in our view, there was clear wrongdoing. That's why we conducted the investigation, and that's why we worked hard to achieve the settlement that we did today. I certainly am interested in seeing the matter resolved, and seeing the right policies be put in place. And importantly, most importantly, Mildred Elley making right with its students, who we allege were deceived by their actions. So I'm happy to announce today's resolution, and I hope it sends a signal to other for-profit actors out there in this space that they have to be fair and not lie to prospective students about their offerings.

I want to quickly turn to the coalition that you've led in support of the Department of Justice's lawsuit against the Texas abortion ban. Could you break down for me what your thoughts are on that effort, and your general thoughts on the state of abortion access nationwide?

Unfortunately, across this country, we've seen state legislatures pass laws to further restrict, or in some cases, ban a woman's access to an abortion. That's what we found most recently in Texas. And so I will continue to take action. I was pleased to lead a group of other state attorneys general in supporting the US Department of Justice's fight against that ban. The Department of Justice sued the state of Texas for that unlawful ban, which is causing real harm to women across the state of Texas as we speak. This is about ensuring that women have access to the health care that they need. And unfortunately, these bans are severely detrimental and really just an affront, not just to a woman's constitutional right to access abortion under Roe, and also just really getting in the way of their lives in serious ways. Whether or not a woman has an ability to access abortion care can determine whether or not she goes to school, stays in school, leaves school, leaves the workforce, stays in the workforce. And it's just a terrible situation, what we're seeing on the ground in Texas, and we’ve got to continue to fight this in the courts. We will be in other Supreme Court cases, my office will, during the course of this term because there are other bans that are on in South Carolina and Mississippi, but we're just not going to back down on this one.

I would be remiss to not ask you about any plans for the future. Obviously, a lot of speculation about the gubernatorial race coming up next year in Massachusetts. At this point, any thoughts on what your political future looks like in the Bay State?

It's something I'm continuing to evaluate. I love the job that I have as Attorney General and I'm continuing to weigh possibilities and options, and I hope to have a decision soon.

Here's Mildred Elley's statement on the settlement:

Mildred Elley’s Pittsfield school reached an agreement ending an inquiry by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office (AGO). The inquiry related to consumer disclosures primarily during 2016 and 2017, for which corrective action was taken shortly after the inquiry began. The agreement includes no admission of any wrongdoing and avoids a lengthy and costly proceeding that may otherwise have occurred. Mildred Elley appreciates the professionalism the AGO displayed throughout the inquiry.

Mildred Elley looks forward to satisfying the educational mission of its students for many years to come. The school will continue to act in the best interests of its students and the Berkshire County communities it serves.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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