10 Florida lan­guage schools abruptly closed, jeop­ar­diz­ing hun­dreds of stu­dent visas

Miami Herald (Sunday) - - Local & State - BY COLLEEN WRIGHT cawright@mi­ami­her­ald.com

Af­ter pay­ing $6,000 and study­ing for a whole year, Alexan­dra Car­de­nas was just three weeks away from com­plet­ing her English course at In­lin­gua Lan­guage School in Do­ral.

But when the 28-yearold Venezue­lan ar­rived for class Mon­day, the cor­ner unit at the Do­ral shop­ping plaza was dark. In­lin­gua had abruptly closed, leav­ing teach­ers with­out their fi­nal pay­checks and Car­de­nas and hun­dreds of her fel­low stu­dents, who are also in the U.S. on stu­dent visas, in a le­gal lurch; their tu­ition never re­funded. Her younger brother had paid $2,480 for a four-month English class just days be­fore.

“We have no idea what’s go­ing to hap­pen now,” she said.

The Do­ral lo­ca­tion and nine other In­lin­gua schools around the state — Aven­tura, Boca Ra­ton, Co­ral Gables, Fort Laud­erdale, Key Bis­cayne, Brick­ell, We­ston, Or­lando, and Tampa — are re­ported to have abruptly shut­tered. Court doc­u­ments say In­lin­gua schools em­ploy about 100 teach­ers and serve more than 700 for­eign stu­dents re­sid­ing in the U.S. on stu­dent visas — many with de­pen­dents.

The lan­guage schools that were cer­ti­fied by the U.S. govern­ment to en­roll for­eign stu­dents had ties to the Orte­gas, a prom­i­nent Ecuado­rian fam­ily that lives in Mi­ami and once ran Ecuador’s fourth-largest bank.

Ac­cord­ing to U.S. bank­ruptcy-court doc­u­ments, the Ortega fam­ily has a legacy of fi­nan­cial trou­bles. In Fe­bru­ary 2003, Leonidas Ortega Tru­jillo cre­ated LTG Foun­da­tion in Panama. Around that same time, the Ortega fam­ily’s bank, Banco Con­ti­nen­tal, was ac­cused of fraud­u­lent trans­ac­tions the ul­ti­mately led to the bank’s fail­ure. Lit­i­ga­tion cost Tru­jillo a judg­ment of al­most $600 mil­lion.

The LTG Foun­da­tion ap­pears in records that were leaked as part of the Panama Pa­pers scan­dal — and cur­rently “di­rectly or in­di­rectly” holds an in­ter­est in the In­lin­gua schools, ac­cord­ing to doc­u­ments.

A law­suit filed in U.S. Bank­ruptcy Court in June 2016 al­leges Tru­jillo did not dis­close in­come from the In­lin­gua schools when he filed for bank­ruptcy in 2015 to avoid cred­i­tors and in­come taxes, de­spite be­ing the only per­son who has ever ben­e­fited from prof­its gen­er­ated from the In­lin­gua schools.

Nei­ther Tru­jillo nor his le­gal team could be reached for com­ments. His son, Leonidas Ortega Amador, also listed as a de­fen­dant in the law­suit, did not re­turn calls for com­ments. Amador told a Tele­mu­ndo re­porter that his sis­ter, Maria Cristina Ortega De Mar­cos, was in charge of the In­lin­gua schools. She did not re­turn re­quests for com­ments.

Lawyers for the Ortega fam­ily claim that it is in­sol­vent and al­leged in court last month that the trustee charged with man­ag­ing Tru­jillo’s es­tate has thwarted deals to sell In­lin­gua.

“For many months to no avail, man­age­ment has tried to ob­tain an in­vestor or buyer — the ubiq­ui­tous ‘white knight,’ and set­tle with the Trustee,” the mo­tion read. “The Cor­po­rate De­fen­dants have brought deal af­ter deal to the Trustee, all the while fight­ing to sur­vive, which deals have been re­jected.”

The next trial date is sched­uled for Tues­day in Mi­ami.

Car­de­nas, the Venezue­lan stu­dent, said she re­ceived a call about three weeks ago from an of­fice ad­min­is­tra­tor at the school to tell her that In­lin­gua was clos­ing and that the ad­min-

WE HAVE NO IDEA WHAT’S GO­ING TO HAP­PEN NOW.

Stu­dent Alexan­dra Car­de­nas

is­tra­tor had been fired with­out re­ceiv­ing her last pay­check. The next day, Car­de­nas said Amador came to the school to re­as­sure stu­dents and staff that all was fine.

Ben­jamin Kell, a teacher at the Key Bis­cayne lo­ca­tion, re­ceived an Oct. 21 email that said classes would con­tinue and to “please dis­re­gard any con­tra­dic­tory in­for­ma­tion you may have re­ceived.”

He no­ticed the last check he re­ceived was from Travel, Live and Learn LLC. Past checks usu­ally came from The Lan­guage Group LLC. Both of those com­pa­nies are listed as de­fen­dants in the bank­ruptcy law­suit.

Then Kell re­ceived a con­cil­ia­tory email on Sun­day in­form­ing teach­ers that the school had closed.

“As many of you know, sev­eral years ago In­lin­gua was dragged into a law­suit by a Chap­ter 7 bank­ruptcy trustee in Dade County who claimed that In­lin­gua be­longed to the bank­ruptcy es­tate he was ad­min­is­ter­ing in the Bank­ruptcy Courts,” it read. “In­lin­gua has in­curred ex­or­bi­tant at­tor­neys’ fees de­fend­ing the ac­tion which was sup­posed to con­clude last July af­ter a five-day trial. Yet, it will not con­clude for many more months and the schools can­not sus­tain them­selves in the mean­time.”

Nora Grundy, an in­struc­tor at the Do­ral lo­ca­tion, no­ticed when a new ses­sion started about six weeks ago that books were not avail­able. She said the school of­fered spe­cial dis­counts to stu­dents who paid in cash.

Then pay­roll switched from direct de­posit to pa­per checks, which were mailed and would ar­rive eight days late. Grundy said she never re­ceived her last pay­check.

“We all have been left sim­ply stranded,” she said.

With­out a clear trans­fer process to an­other school to main­tain their visa sta­tuses, Grundy has tried to help her stu­dents by con­tact­ing the Stu­dent and Ex­change Vis­i­tor In­for­ma­tion Sys­tem (SEVIS), which is run by U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment, for guid­ance. Only some stu­dents, she said, have been granted trans­fers.

About 25 stu­dents and staff gath­ered out­side their for­mer school in Do­ral on Wed­nes­day night to give their ac­counts to the news me­dia. Many came with re­ceipts of the hun­dreds of dol­lars paid in tu­ition and shared sto­ries about the te­dious trans­fer process to an­other school to avoid jeop­ar­diz­ing their stu­dent visas.

Un­der a sheet of pa­per that was taped to In­lin­gua’s door and read

“school is closed” in scrawled red ink was an­other makeshift sign:

“Por que nos mintieron tanto in­clu­ido el per­sonal y los dueños? [ Why did they lie to us so much in­clud­ing the staff and the own­ers?]” somone wrote in pink high­lighter. “Nos en­ga­naron! [They de­ceived us!]“

Con­tact Colleen Wright at 305-376-3003 and @Colleen_Wright.

PE­DRO POR­TAL ppor­tal@mi­ami­her­ald.com

Stu­dents on Wed­nes­day in front of the in­lin­gua Lan­guage Cen­ter in Do­ral af­ter all of the com­pany's schools in Florida abruptly closed over the week­end. That leaves more than 700 stu­dents, most of whom are im­mi­grants on stu­dent visas and al­ready paid thou­sands of dol­lars for classes, with­out a school and scram­bling to trans­fer to keep their visas.

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