Discover more from Battle Borne
Are New Allegations Against Veteran Education Officials a Serious Scandal or a Political Smear?
Claims of vested interests, potential insider trading, and other misconduct focus on officials who've defended the G.I. Bill
More than a decade ago, former U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, launched the first major Congressional investigation into predatory for-profit schools that target veterans.
In this work, Harkin and his staff faced a lot of heat, and harassment. According to The New York Times, Avy Stein, an executive at an equity fund that owned numerous for-profit schools, confronted Harkin in the Senate dining room and pledged to “make life rough” for him should he keep up his snooping. “I took it as a threat,” Harkin told the Times. “It was one of the most blatant comments ever made to me in my years in the Senate.”
Since Harkin’s inquiry, predatory schools have continued to evade oversight, sink commonsense reforms, and make money. This has been accomplished through lobbying, campaign donations, and outright skullduggery, like improperly infiltrating military bases to recruit students and establishing a shadowy think tank that peddles misinformation.
In March, the industry suffered a rare setback when Congress moved to repeal the so-called 90/10 loophole, which has long incentivized bad schools to go after G.I. Bill dollars. This action won’t fully defang for-profits, but will soon force them to find more tuition dollars from non-government sources.
While many Veterans Affairs (VA) officials and policy advocates surely celebrated this policy change following years of hard-fought battles, some are now scrambling to understand and address a trio of recent letters sent by another Iowa Senator — Republican Chuck Grassley. Whereas Harkin looked into officials exploiting the G.I. Bill, Grassley is now raising allegations against some who’ve defended it.
Specifically, his correspondence raises the prospect of “improper contracting practices, whistleblower reprisal, and VA officials allegedly failing to protect internal deliberative information which may have led to individuals trading on non-public information.” The letters are based on documents and whistleblower interviews, as well as a series of posts from the right-leaning National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC)and a California lawsuit seeking VA records.
While Grassley is seeking information on numerous officials, he appears most interested in a potential conflict of interest between Charmain Bogue, the VA’s Executive Director of Education Service, and her husband, Barrett Bogue, a former VA official who is now a private consultant on G.I. Bill and other veteran education matters. (Barrett declined to speak on the record; questions posed to the VA regarding Charmain were answered with a statement detailed later in the story.)
Some of the more minor charges contained in Grassley’s letters — which were sent to the VA and the Securities and Exchange Commission — are easily disproven, while others seem credible, and are backed up by evidence.
In processing the Iowa senator’s claims, veteran advocates have vacillated between calmly clarifying key information and quietly suggesting that the whole efforts smells like the latest dirty trick from the for-profit industry.
This is a thinly sourced theory, though there are certainly shadowy forces promulgating some of these allegations. Oddly enough, some of the allegations involve Veterans Education Success (VES), a respected non-profit run by one of Harkin’s former staffers, Carrie Wofford. (For a while, VES paid Barrett as a consultant.)
VES has been repeatedly targeted for its work, most recently a through a shadowy website — www.CollegeChoiceKillers.com. Run by a dark money group, the site — which was shuttered after cease and desist letters over false statements — depicted Wofford as one of the “hatchet men” hellbent on depriving veterans educational freedom. (It also alleged conflicts between the Bogues and raised the prospect of insider trading.)
In a statement, Wofford contended that these online attacks were “just the latest dishonorable tactics by the for-profit college industry in their attempt to undermine the bipartisan, common-sense efforts to stop waste, fraud, and abuse in higher education."
Grassley, meanwhile, is a complicated figure. While he’s not a top beneficiary of campaign cash from for-profit schools, he has received an accumulated total of about $40,000 from Apollo Education Group — the owner of University of Phoenix. (In 2020, Apollo’s CEO, Marc Rowan, donated $11,200 to Grassley.)
Even so, Grassley hasn’t stood in the way of commonsense G.I. Bill reform before, and none of his former staffers are currently lobbying on behalf of predatory schools. He has a fairly strong record on oversight and whistleblower issues. And while it’s presently difficult to understand exactly what information his office has in hand, some of the allegations were first raised years ago, and appear to emanate from within the VA, not the for-profit industry.
"Nothing in this letter could be viewed as a defense of the bad actors in the education industry," a Grassley staffer told me. "This is purely a good government oversight issue. Any attempts to paint it otherwise comes across as kind of disingenuous."
It appears that the Bogues first met at the VA. Barrett, a Marine Corps veteran, arrived at the department in 2007, where he spent nearly a decade working mostly on educational issues, including a stint directing G.I. Bill oversight. Charmain arrived at the VA in 2011. In 2014, she secured a senior role overseeing veterans’ education issues. In 2018, she was promoted to Executive Director of Education Service, a job she still holds today.
In 2016, Barret left the VA to be Vice President for Public Relations and Chapter Engagement for Student Veterans of America (SVA). In 2017, SVA partnered with the VA to produce the National Veteran Education Success Tracker (NVEST)— a groundbreaking analysis into the outcomes of nearly 900,000 veterans who’d received the G.I. Bill. SVA exclusively obtained VA data for this report, which attracted significant financial support from numerous foundations, and Google. One of the report’s co-authors was Barrett, while Charmain served as a key coordinator on the VA side.
It was also in 2017 that SVA, according to its website, led 60 organizations to “secure the largest expansion in VA education benefits in nearly a decade.” This was the Forever G.I. Bill, which Charmain was deeply involved with implementing. (An SVA spokesman said Barrett wasn’t regularly interacting with VA officials at SVA.)
Some sources see the Bogues as morally upright, and contend they’ve carefully separated their work and personal lives. But I spoke to others who felt that their relationship was never properly addressed by the VA. “There were issues raised during my tenure,” one former VA official said. “As best I could tell, the department didn’t get ahead of this appearance of a conflict. “
The tension over how to handle this relationship spilled over in February 2018. That month, officials from the VA’s Office of General Counsel (OGC) put forward guidance for Charmain to recuse herself from work on the VA’ s VET TEC program, as some believed that SVA would be involved in some capacity, perhaps in market research or, potentially, through a partnership or contract.
“It’s fine for Charmain’s employees to work on this matter, even while Charmain is recused,” an OGC official wrote on February 28, 2018. “But it must be clear to everyone involved that Charmain is not to be consulted on this matter at all.”
This opinion was heatedly discussed among VA officials, with one senior leader contending that SVA had “affirmed” they would not be bidding. An SVA spokesman also contended that the organization was never interested or involved with any work around VET TEC.
Yet according to two knowledgeable sources — as well as external and internal correspondence — SVA had expressed eager if ill-defined interest in VET TEC. One of these sources vividly recalled a senior SVA official saying his organization was “very interested in helping get VET TEC to the right place.”
In the end, it appears that efforts to clarify how Charmain should interact with SVA were squashed. A then-senior VA official contended efforts to seek ethics review created “a narrative around a nonexistent potential conflict of interest, targeting Charmain, and continuing to push the discourse in places it doesn’t belong.”
A former VA official suggested that the close working relationship between Barrett’s organization and Charmain’s office suggested “evidence of some sort of conflict of interest that should have been looked at.” In a 2018 e-mail, another official agreed: “The inference that seeking ethics reviews is wrong is very troubling and, in my opinion, exactly why VA finds itself in the news litigating scandal after scandal.”
In July 2018, Barrett started a consulting shop, Evocati LLC, which, according to its website, supports clients “who want to market their service and lead positive social change inside the military-connected community.” His company has worked with a number of education-oriented organizations, including VES and the College Board. According to LinkedIn, Barrett launched this venture “at my wife's encouragement.”
“Business was good,” he wrote. “So good that when Evocati signed its second client to a year-long contract in November 2018, I submitted my resignation at [SVA] the next day. I decided the road less traveled led to the better destination.”
This second client was VES. According to a VES official, Evocati, received $5,000 per month on contract to provide communications help for the non-profit. In total, Evocati received $160,000, but Barrett stopped consulting for VES in late 2020 because, according to this VES official, the organization needed more help than what Barrett could offer in his part-time status.
VES said they hired Barrett because he was the only real communications expert in town with expertise on the G.I. Bill. An official said they explicitly walled off Barrett from any VA activity. While the organization acknowledged there was no formal written agreement to prevent any conflicts of interest, they contended it wasn’t a hard task, as Barrett rarely worked from the office and mostly stayed in the realm of public relations. Furthermore, a VES official said Barrett had adamantly communicated that the VA was aware of, and had cleared, his professional arrangements.
In a potential breach of Barrett’s firewall, VES’ Vice President, Tanya Ang, was, up until quite recently, listed as a consultant on the Evocati website. “Veterans Education Success has a rigorous code of ethics, including a strict ban on even the appearance of a conflict of interest and frequent reminders to all employees,” Wofford said in a statement. “This matter is under review. However, we will have no further comment on an individual personnel matter.”
It was Barrett’s tenure at VES that caught the attention of the National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC), a right-leaning foundation that first gained prominence in 1993 after working to open the records of then-First Lady Hillary Clinton’s health care task force. (NLPC did not respond to a request for comment seeking transparency into its funding sources.)
Their recent posts on VES were far from their first tangle with the veterans’ education world. In 2010, NLPC launched a zealous campaign against Harkin’s work into for-profit schools. Specifically, they criticized him for relying on the testimony and insights of Steve Eisman, an infamous stock trader portrayed by Steve Carrell in “The Big Short.” The moral complexities around Eisman’s assistance were well-summed up in a 2010 article from Inside Higher Ed:
Either directly or indirectly, Eisman and other short sellers — people who make investments betting that a certain stock price will fall — have been lobbying Congress and U.S. Department of Education officials for months, seeking out greater regulation while not necessarily being transparent about their financial interests. Some are also said to be behind news stories and whistleblower lawsuits against the sector with the idea that bad publicity — and tougher federal regulation — will drive down higher education stock prices and help short sellers rake in profits.
In addition to NLPC, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) also slammed the Eisman-Harkin working relationship. Yet while CREW generally enjoys a positive reputation today, their harsh words came as they were secretly accepting funds from the family that founded the University of Phoenix. (Harkin, for his part, defended Eisman’s testimony as in the public interest, and therefore valuable even if Eisman was profiting from it.)
NLPC has made a series of trumped-up allegations against VES, including that the organization improperly failed to detail Barrett’s payments on their tax forms. (In reality, Barrett’s exact wages weren’t specified because they fell below an IRS threshold.)
NLPC has also claimed that Charmain did not properly disclose her husband’s work on federal ethics forms. While NLPC has not released those forms — an oddity among good government groups — they claim Barrett is listed on them only as “Self-Employed (Consulting Firm).” According to ethics rules, this level of disclosure is perfectly adequate.
Questions remain over exactly what the VA knew about the Bogues’ professional relationship, and how they handled it. I sought to understand what steps, if any, were taken inside VA to mitigate the appearance of a conflict of interest. VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes declined to answers specific questions and instead released the following statement:
VA takes allegations of unethical or corrupt behavior by our employees very seriously. We hold our senior leadership to the highest standards, especially those who are entrusted with safeguarding the sacred benefits our Veterans have earned through their service. We intend to fully review the issues raised by Sen. Grassley and take all necessary action to ensure the integrity of our programs, including referral to our own Office of the Inspector General.
A Grassley staffer told me his office hasn't received any indication that the VA cleared the relationship between the Bogues, but contended that if any such advisory opinion did exist it could be "problematic.
"Any reasonable government ethics attorney would probably advise that a government employee recuse his or herself from any matter involving a spouse, as government employees should always seek to avoid even the potential appearance of a conflict of interest," he said.
Grassley’s most serious insinuation raises the prospect of insider trading ahead of a monumental VA decision — later reversed — to suspend G.I. Bill enrollment at a series of for-profit schools, some of which are publicly traded.
In his letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission, Grassley cites documents, interviews with whistleblowers, and a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit out of California to raise the possibility that, in early 2020, market-sensitive information involving this impending crackdown leaked out of the VA and was used to short stocks.
Gary Aguirre, a former SEC lawyer who specialized in insider trading, is spearheading the suit. He is seeking communications leading up to this decision between VA officials and employees at a slew of organizations, including Evocati and VES. Aguirre contends his litigation is necessary because the VA has “circled the wagons” and refused to provide key documents in a timely manner.
Aguirre appears most interested in Monday, March 9, 2020 — the day the VA made their announcement. He also contends there was strange market drops before this March decision was made, including at Career Education, which are detailed below:
“You have some sharp movements before the announcement,” Aguirre recently told me. “The question is: what triggered those moves? Did someone engage in insider trading? I don’t know. Is there sufficient evidence to warrant an investigation? I believe there is.”
For years leading up to this March announcement, journalists, federal watchdogs, state attorneys general, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and veterans groups had been heavily scrutinizing for-profit schools. Among this chorus was VES, which produced critical policy papers and reports on for-profits, and also engaged in legal support and advocacy.
In short, the pressure to crack down on for-profits came publicly, and from all sorts of interests. Yet Grassley and Aguirre have suggested that the key player was VES. As evidence, they point to a VES letter written to Charmain two months before the March decision. The correspondence itself did not explicitly request these schools be frozen out from G.I. Bill dollars. Rather, it highlighted serious allegations against them and declared that they were technically “ineligible for educational benefits.” (The letter also sought improvements to the VA’s flawed G.I. Bill comparison tool.)
The VA’s announcement to suspend enrollment on March 9 specifically cited work not by VES, but state attorneys general and the FTC. Such a decision would clearly impact the value of these companies, which some VA officials appeared worried about. Six days before the news was made public, James Ruhlman, the VA’s Deputy Director for Program Management in education services, wrote to colleagues about the potential value of this decision.
“We’re keeping the information ‘close hold’ in order to prevent misinformed leaks, general panic, and insider trading,” Ruhlman wrote.
At 11 a.m. on the 9th, VA official Mandy Hartman organized a call with 30 veterans service organizations for a “University of Phoenix update.” It was on this call that the VA told advocates about their decision. According to an email, the VA embargoed this information until 1 p.m.
Throughout the afternoon, journalists and advocates shared this news on Twitter. VES tweeted at 2:36 p.m. (They were not the first one.) “We have never violated a government news embargo," Wofford said in a statement. As seen above, the Career Education stock plunged.
In an odd twist, the VA listed its press release on the matter as being released at 5:59 p.m., after the markets closed. Yet it was clearly posted before then, as groups tweeted out the link as early as 1:32 p.m.
The allegations and suspicion currently swirling around the Bogues will likely become more commonplace as the revolving door between government and the private sector continues to spin faster. In recent years, many bonafide veterans advocates have left jobs at the VA or Congressionally chartered veterans service organization for more lucrative corporate gigs. Even some highly respected veteran groups have turned to corporate sponsorships, which has at times put them at odds with the needs of their members.
Take the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States (EANGUS), which has intensely opposed G.I. Bill improvements, including the repeal of the 90/10 loophole. Why did they take this position? I’m not exactly sure, but their corporate partners include some of the most notorious for-profits, including Phoenix.