Posted: 03/24/2014 01:16:46 PM PDT2 Comments | Updated: 73 min. ago
Howard Mintz
Mercury News

The entrance of Tri-Valley University, 405 Boulder Court in Pleasanton, Calif., 2011. (Cindi Christie/Staff)

SAN FRANCISCO -- In a case that highlighted the growing problem of so-called "visa mills," a federal jury on Monday convicted the founder and president of Tri-Valley University of dozens of fraud charges related to a multimillion dollar scheme to illegally provide immigration status to foreign nationals.

After two days of deliberations, the jury convicted Susan Su of 31 counts, ranging from conspiracy to commit visa fraud to money laundering to alien harboring in connection with allegations she ran a scam school in Pleasanton from 2008 until her arrest in 2011.

U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar ordered Su into custody following the jury's verdict and set sentencing for June 20. Federal prosecutors have yet to recommend a sentence, but Su, 43, faces the possibility of many years in a federal prison.

A federal grand jury indicted Su three years ago, alleging her university, which catered primarily to online students, was a bogus, unaccredited venture designed to rake in millions of dollars from foreigners who sought to obtain student visas so they could remain in the United States.

The Tri-Valley case prompted Sen. Dianne Feinstein and others to call for a crackdown on similar schools and a GAO report identified the school as the tip of the iceberg in a larger problem with visa fraud.

During the trial, federal prosecutors accused Su of simple greed, telling the jury she defrauded the students out of about $5.5 million in less than two years, using the money to buy commercial properties in Pleasanton that served as the university's offices as well as a mansion at Ruby Hill Golf Club and a Mercedes-Benz.

The indictment alleged Su falsified documents and lied to investigators and immigration officials about how students were affiliated with the school, which lacked instructors or appropriate course material. Federal investigators found more than 550 students enrolled at the Alameda County university were registered as living at the same address, a two-bedroom apartment in Sunnyvale.

Erik Babcock, Su's attorney, could not be reached for comment. But in remarks to the jury, he defended Su, saying the government was going after her to get her assets and that she operated the school "in good faith."

Another case raising similar allegations involving a different university in Silicon Valley is set to go to trial in July in San Jose federal court. Jerry Wang, the CEO of Herguan University, faces federal fraud charges in that trial, where prosecutors plan to accuse him of running a sham school to sponsor overseas students for the coveted visas.

Both the Tri-Valley and Herguan cases threw the immigration status of hundreds of students into doubt. Several former students testified for the government during Su's trial, including a former student, Vandana Satija of New Jersey, who told the jury Su threatened her with the prospect of deportation after she raised questions about the school and demanded a refund.