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Probe haunts Weld in bid for N.Y. governor

In a file photo William Weld, a Republican candidate for New York governor, poses for a photo after speaking to members of the Rochester Rotary Club in Rochester, N.Y., Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2006. Decker College, a for-profit trade school run by former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, is now closed, mired in bankruptcy proceedings and under federal investigation in a case that has cast a long shadow over Weld's bid to become the next governor of New York. In a file photo William Weld, a Republican candidate for New York governor, poses for a photo after speaking to members of the Rochester Rotary Club in Rochester, N.Y., Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2006. Decker College, a for-profit trade school run by former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, is now closed, mired in bankruptcy proceedings and under federal investigation in a case that has cast a long shadow over Weld's bid to become the next governor of New York. (AP Photo/David Duprey)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. --Andre Copeland enrolled at Decker College to study heating and air conditioning repair. But he says most of his classroom work consisted of tests, sometimes with the answers given, and there was no hands-on training during the 10 months he was enrolled.

Dale Michael Brown signed up at Decker to study electrical work but says he never ever met a real electrician.

And a former instructor at Decker says he was told to set up fake workshops filled with lumber and tools to fool inspectors from the accrediting agency.

Decker, a for-profit trade school run by former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, is now closed, mired in bankruptcy proceedings and under FBI investigation in a case that has cast a long shadow over Weld's bid to become the next governor of New York.

Weld has said he knew of no illegal activity at the college and has offered to help with the investigation.

The school, which enrolled 3,700 students, closed last fall after the Education Department cut off its student loan funding. The department said the school owes $7.2 million in loan money it did not qualify for.

Federal authorities are looking into suspicions of financial aid fraud. Among other things, they want to know whether Decker kept money it should have returned to the Education Department when students dropped out early, and whether Decker used student loan money for what inspectors found were shoddy courses.

Inspectors found that students enrolled in the school's 66-week programs spent just eight weeks in the classroom learning carpentry and other trades, and did most of their studies online, at home.

Weld became involved with Decker when his company, Leeds Weld and Co., bought a $30 million interest in a financially troubled trucking school, Franklin Career Services, in 2002.

Within weeks, that school shut its doors after a finance company that had loaned thousands of dollars to students cut off the money and sued Franklin, claiming the owners were running "a fraudulent loan mill." Franklin's owners, Jeffrey and Gerald Woodcox, then bought Louisville-based Decker, bringing along Weld's company as a stakeholder.

The new owners added carpentry, electrical and other construction trades. The school, which charged tuition ranging from $22,000 to $28,000 for a degree, also opened new campuses in Louisville, Jacksonville, Fla., Indianapolis and Atlanta.

Former Decker instructor Brian Vandenburgh said he set up two classrooms in Louisville with new equipment for carpentry and electrical classes, but the rooms were there only to pass inspections by accreditors. He said he was told to stack plywood, tools and concrete inside, but students never used any of it.

Vandenburgh said the rooms were poorly designed for workshop classes because they were carpeted. "It should have been painfully obvious something was wrong with the way it was set up for inspection," he said.

Weld took over as chief executive of Decker in January 2005 and has acknowledged becoming involved in its finances and operations.

At the Louisville school, he sought to restore the student loan funding that was revoked by the Education Department, trading sharply worded letters with the school's accreditation agency, the Council on Occupational Education, which said it did not approve the online courses.

Gary Puckett, executive director of the agency, did not return several calls for comment.

In July, Weld took out a $3 million loan on behalf of Decker while the school slid toward bankruptcy. The following month, the Republican declared his candidacy for governor of New York.

In late August, the school closed its call centers -- the main source for recruiting new students -- and shut its doors a few weeks later. In October, the FBI raided Decker's offices, seizing boxes of documents and computer files.

Weld said Decker was one of 20 investments in for-profit schools made by Leeds-Weld. While campaigning recently in Rochester, N.Y., Weld said he knows Decker's collapse will persist as a political issue, "but there's going to be plenty of political issues going in both directions in this campaign."

Details of how the owners spent Decker's money have begun to surface in bankruptcy court. The bankruptcy trustee, Robert Keats, said $115,281 of the college's money went to pay property taxes on Jeffrey Woodcox's Florida property.

Messages left at a telephone listing for Woodcox were not returned.

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