Racketeering claims made in federal suits against Mountain State University

By John O'Brien | Dec 12, 2012

MARTINSBURG – Several more lawsuits have been filed in federal court against Mountain State University over its alleged failure to inform students of the school’s accreditation issues.

The federal lawsuits against Mountain State and former university president Charles Polk differ from many of those filed in state courts. The federal lawsuits - which also name MSU Building Company, MSU Foundation and MSU Endowment Fund as defendants - allege racketeering.

“Defendants were engaged in a widespread criminal enterprise consisting of a pattern of racketeering activity and a conspiracy to engage in racketeering activity involving numerous racketeering acts during the past 10 calendar years,” a complaint filed Dec. 10 says.

“The predicate acts alleged herein include mail fraud and wire fraud. These acts were not isolated events, but rather part of an overall conspiracy and pattern of racketeering activity.”

The complaints say Polk was the leader of the MSU Enterprise and controlled the racketeering activity. It also says Polk’s salary in 2009 was more than $1.8 million – a figure that represented approximately 3.5 percent of the school’s annual budget. That was the highest percentage received by a president from a private university’s budget in 2009, the suit says.

Lawsuits filed against Mountain State allege students who were admitted to the nursing program were informed it was accredited by National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission and West Virginia Board of Examiners for Registered Professional Nurses, but later discovered the nursing program did not have full accreditation status.

In 2008, the NLNAC voted to place the nursing program at MSU on warning and scheduled the next evaluation visit for spring 2010.

After the spring 2010 visit by the NLNAC, the commission voted to deny continuing accreditation to the BSN program, and the defendants failed to inform the students of the accreditation denial and encouraged them to continue paying for and participating in the program, according to the suits.

The lawsuits claim that on Nov. 12, 2010, the West Virginia Board of Examiners for Registered Professional Nurses voted unanimously to require that MSU’s BSN program cease and desist all admissions to all nursing programs/pathways or any other program representing progression toward a nursing degree for a minimum of 15 months.

The defendants were allegedly negligent in keeping the students informed and breached the contract with the plaintiffs by failing to provide the education opportunity promised.

On Aug. 1, the University of Charleston announced it is taking over Mountain State University’s campuses in Beckley and Martinsburg.

Fourteen lawsuits filed in Jefferson County Circuit Court on Aug. 6 alleged a widespread criminal enterprise and racketeering activity. They were removed to federal court in Martinsburg on Sept. 20.

From Dec. 4-10, another 19 racketeering lawsuits were filed against the university and Polk by attorney Sherman Lambert, Sr. of Shepherdstown.

The Skinner Law Firm of Charles Town filed the original 14 racketeering lawsuits. The complaints filed by the two firms are largely the same.

They take issue with two books co-authored by Polk – “the only books ever published by the Mountain State University Press.

One book, titled “Apex Thinking,” is a “playbook” for Polk’s alleged racketeering, the plaintiffs say. The complaints quote the following passages from the book:

-“(S)ometimes the deliberate misuse of power becomes the only way to survive…”;

-“While power, per se is neither positive or negative, certain situations necessitate its deliberate negative application.”;

-“It is an age old story: Everyone who reaches the top, sooner or later will find themselves challenged with their backs against the proverbial wall. It is then that apex thinkers conclude their own survival is more important than the ethical or non-ethical use of power.”;

-“There are times when it is essential to skew information so that (it) creates a desired impression. If that’s lying then one may have to lie a ‘little bit.’”; and

-“(T)he best scapegoat technique is to pass blame along to some abstract agency or organization.”

As for the racketeering claims, the complaint says each of the defendants has been associated with the Mountain State Enterprise and aided and abetted its actions.

“The defendants engaged in schemes to defraud MSU nursing students through mail and wire fraud regarding accreditation status of the nursing program,” the complaints say.

“At all times the plaintiff applied to, was accepted and attended MSU, the MSU Enterprise was aware that the nursing program was unstable, and that the loss of accreditation was imminent.

“Nonetheless, the MSU Enterprise continued to assure students that nursing program was stable and assured Plaintiff to continue taking out the maximum amount for student loans. When Plaintiff called MSU, they heard a recording that said, ‘Welcome to Mountain State, your fully accredited hometown university.’ However, nobody returned Plaintiff’s telephone calls.”

The Skinner Law Firm has filed a motion to remand its suits back to state court. Though the complaints contain claims made under the federal racketeering law, the Skinner firm says the majority of claims are grounded in state law.

The complaints also make conspiracy, fraud and breach of contract claims, as well as a claim under the West Virginia Consumer Credit Protection Act.

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