AT HEARINGS ON student financial aid fraud in 1993, senators
wondered why the Education Department had failed to crack down on
ineligible schools that continued to receive millions of federal
Part of the answer was right under their noses.
Interviews and government documents show that members of
Congress themselves often make it hard for the department to
enforce the rules on home-state schools. Losses to defaulted loans
and wasted grants run into the billions of dollars each year.
A stark example occurred just a few months before the hearings
when Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., called department officials to a
meeting on Capitol Hill. The purpose was to lobby the department to
unconditionally approve Mercy College's proposed takeover of the
bankrupt Center for Media Arts in New York.
The college wanted to use the center as a satellite campus but
wanted to avoid having to repay $900,000 in federal tuition refunds
due to the center's students. The department was insisting that the
students - and the taxpayers - be protected as a condition of the
Nadler, Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman, R-N.Y., and six aides to other
New York lawmakers lectured the bureaucrats for almost four hours,
not letting them go until 8:15 p.m., according to a written summary
of the meeting.
"The amount of political pressure exerted against the
department was truly extraordinary in this case," Diane Sedicum, a
department official, wrote in a memorandum a few days after the
meeting of April 28, 1993.
She called the session politically charged, volatile and
Nadler denies that he was exerting undue pressure.
"This was a constituency problem, and I was trying to get a
bureaucracy to interpret their rules reasonably," he said. He had
no leverage over the department's budget and made no threats,
Nadler said, although he acknowledged being forceful.
"What in New York is regarded as mild discourse, here is
regarded as heavy pressure. Maybe it's cultural," he joked.
Ultimately, the takeover bid failed and the media school folded.
David Longanecker, the department assistant secretary who
oversees student aid, said he saw the pressure as part of the
normal give-and-take between the department and Congress. Most of
it is "wholly appropriate," he said, although he acknowledged that
it could feel threatening to enforcement personnel.
He said that only once during his two-year tenure has he felt
truly uncomfortable with a request from a member of Congress,
"where a person suggested retribution. I thought the overture from
the congressperson was out of line. There was clearly a sort of
quid pro quo suggested. …