An unfair exchange
A couple who preyed on the fears of foreign exchange students is accused of diverting more than $100,000 meant to help pay the students' tuition and expenses.Failure to pay host families, as promised.
One of those students is staying with a family in Richland after arriving in Pennsylvania from South Korea and finding he didn't have a promised host family.
State Attorney General Tom Corbett filed a lawsuit Thursday against Timothy H. and Tina Sweet of Allentown in Lehigh County Court, where Judge J. Brian Johnson issued a court order freezing their assets and barring them from bringing more students to the United States.
Ruthellen Bonomo said she had never considered hosting an exchange student until her son Zach, who attends Faith Christian Academy in Sellersville, told her about a boy at his school who was looking for a home.
"After begging for three days, I finally said OK," said Bonomo. "It's the best thing I did."
Kelvin Kim had been scared to speak out, Bonomo said, afraid there'd be retaliation.
The Sweets did business as United Student Exchange and United International Studies, advertising the placement of students in Christian communities.
Most of the students were recruited in Korea. Their families were required to prepay school tuition and fees for U.S. host families, but many schools and host families said they received either minimal payments from the Sweets or none at all, Corbett said in the lawsuit.
Additionally, the Sweets occasionally threatened to send students home before the end of their 10-month stays if they, their schools or their host families complained about unpaid expenses or missing funds, Corbett said.
According to the lawsuit, arriving students often learned that their host families had not yet been recruited. Foreign students without a host family were placed in "temporary" homes or housed in the Sweet's home, as many as eight students at a time, Corbett said in a press release.
When Bonomo contacted Kelvin's family in Korea, she got a copy of a canceled check made out to the Sweets. She learned Faith Christian was still owed $38,000.
The Sweet's Web site had a listing of schools, and Melissa Myers, a volunteer with the Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students, a nonprofit that offers help for kids in trouble, started calling them, finding that nine schools had not been paid.
Bonomo called state Rep. Paul Clymer to figure out what to do. A meeting with the Attorney General's Office was arranged. Bonomo and Myers were told if they could get three other schools to file a complaint, the office would look into the situation.
They e-mailed schools and host families and encouraged them to send letters to Clymer, who took them to the Attorney General's Office, which looked into the allegations.
"The Sweets and their business ... took advantage of families hoping to send their children to America to enjoy once-in-a-lifetime educational experiences," Corbett said in a statement. "Instead, visiting students and their U.S. host families were met with empty promises and disappointment — left to fend for themselves by a business that claimed to be "uniting the world with Christ, one student at a time.' "
Corbett said the violations of the Consumer Protection Law listed in the civil lawsuit filed against the Sweets include:
Failure to pay school tuition, as promised.
Misrepresentation of support to students and host families.
Contract terms in violation of Consumer Protection Law.
Failure to register fictitious business names.
Corbett said the lawsuit filed against the Sweets and their businesses seeks to permanently prohibit them from placing additional foreign students in the U.S. The couple is also required to preserve their bank accounts and open them to state investigators, said Corbett's spokesman, Nils Frederiksen.
Contacted at home by the Associated Press, Timothy Sweet referred questions about the lawsuit to the couple's lawyer, Robert Rust. Rust did not return a telephone message Friday.
Frederiksen said this isn't an issue about going after the students; it's about helping them.
"Nobody should suffer in silence," he said.
A court hearing on the lawsuit and the request for a preliminary injunction and asset freeze is scheduled for March 19.