lawsuit claims arts school preyed on immigrant families

Today in Los Angeles, 77 parents and students filed a lawsuit against the former president and vice president of Montecito Fine Arts School, alleging that the private school program specifically targeted and defrauded Chinese and Taiwanese immigrant families: Suit claims Montecito Fine Arts school preyed on immigrant families.

Trisha Ying Zi Zhang and Edgar Kuckelkorn are accused of scamming families, lying about the educational and professional opportunities provided by their school and collecting over $1.5 million in tuition before closing last summer. Here's part of the press release from APALC:
Defendants Zhang and Kuckelkorn ran schools located in Arcadia, Brea and Monrovia, where they offered art classes, 3D animation and a private high school. To lure students to their schools, Defendants Zhang and Kuckelkorn made numerous false representations using Chinese language radio, Chinese newspapers, Spanish language advertisements, appearances at college fairs and in-person meetings. These representations included touting the high quality and value of Montecito courses, guaranteed internships with prominent companies due to Defendants' "connections," portfolio development in art design and improved chances of admission to prestigious universities. Defendants also lied about Montecito's financial stability, collecting payment for classes up to the month they closed their doors, all the while promising the courses would be continued. In August 2009, Montecito filed for bankruptcy. Plaintiffs paid collectively over $1.5 million in tuition.

"This was a concerted, well-orchestrated scam by two individuals to cheat parents out of their hard-earned money by promising benefits to their children and by exploiting immigrant communities' uncertainties about how best to navigate the American educational system," said Julie A. Su, Litigation Director at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center. "Through high-pressure sales tactics and constant advertisements through trusted media in ethnic communities, Defendants Zhang and Kuckelkorn made families believe that these were offers they could not refuse, when in fact, they had no intention of fulfilling the promises made."

Defendants Zhang and Kuckelkorn personally made the misrepresentations, and directed their agents to do so. They knew that the Chinese immigrant community in particular was vulnerable to the fraudulent promises regarding the benefits of Montecito's educational and vocational services and utilized Trisha Zhang's shared Chinese background as a way to gain and exploit Plaintiffs' trust.

Specifically, Zhang and Kuckelkorn scammed immigrant parents and students by claiming that upon signing up for Montecito, they would provide courses of a certain substance, including professional help with art portfolios. Zhang and Kuckelkorn falsely represented that they would provide a 20-course curriculum in 3D animation, completion of which would bring specific benefits and skills development, including selective internship placements and certifications. Zhang and Kuckelkorn promised that enrollment in Montecito's private high school would result in particular academic and college admissions outcomes as well.

The former directors lured in immigrant community members by providing fraudulent "deals" on grossly-inflated tuition, representing that these "discounts" would expire quickly or were only available to a small number of consumers, when in fact this was untrue. They also represented that all prepaid tuition would be safely kept in a trust account, and that Montecito was properly accredited when it was not. The complaint includes claims for fraud, negligent misrepresentation and violations of various California consumer protection statutes.
Basically, the defendants preyed on Chinese and Taiwanese families, luring them with that irresistible magical promise: education -- something they knew many new immigrants didn't know enough about in this country, but would pay a high price for. For more information about the lawsuit, go to the APALC website here.