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July 13, 2023

AG Tong sues Stone Academy, owner Joseph Bierbaum 

YEHYUN KIM / CTMIRROR.ORG Attorney General William Tong at a press conference speaking with the media.

Attorney General William Tong is suing Stone Academy and Paier College of Art, and their owner Joseph Bierbaum, alleging violations of the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act (CUTPA) – the same statute under which attorneys secured a $73 million settlement with Remington Arms, which manufactured the gun used in the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting.

The settlement in the Sandy Hook case stemmed from a state Supreme Court ruling that found CUTPA “prohibits as unfair advertising that is, among other things, immoral, unethical, oppressive and unscrupulous.”

Tong is suing the schools and their owner following the abrupt closure of for-profit nursing school Stone Academy and its three campuses in East Hartford, West Haven and Waterbury earlier this year.

Tong’s office is seeking civil penalties totaling millions of dollars, in addition to the disgorgement of all revenues, profits and gains achieved through “repeated, willful acts of deception and unfairness” violating CUTPA. The complaint also seeks restitution for students.

“The law is clear: businesses in our state should accurately represent the product or service they are selling, and consumers should expect to receive exactly what they paid for,” Department of Consumer Protection Deputy Commissioner Shirley Skyers-Thomas said.

Tong said that Stone Academy promised “hands-on training from industry leaders, and an education that would position students to become Licensed Practical Nurses in less than two years.” 

“These were lies,” Tong stated. “This is textbook consumer deception — our evidence is unassailable, and we will get justice for Stone’s students.”

Tong launched an investigation on Feb. 23, and sent a civil investigative demand to Stone Academy. He said that Stone’s response to the investigation has been “plagued with calculated maneuvers to withhold damaging texts and emails and aggressive public relations campaigns designed to obfuscate and mislead the public, its own students, state officials and lawmakers.” 

Stone aggressively advertised on billboards, social media, radio, television and the internet, targeting women and prominently featuring women of color, he said.

While the school failed to deliver on its promises, the owners, Bierbaum and Mark Scheinberg, received millions of dollars in profits, he said.

According to Tong, the owners formed separate businesses to service Stone Academy, with Stone administrators being routinely assigned to work for Paier College.

In multiple instances, Stone Academy paid expenses on behalf of Paier, including marketing costs and charitable contributions, Tong said.

Perry Rowthorn, attorney for Stone Academy, issued the following statement Thursday in response to the lawsuit filed by Tong:

“It is sadly not surprising that the State’s efforts are devoted to preparing a baseless lawsuit, instead of helping the many vulnerable students harmed by the Office of Higher Education (OHE) forcing the precipitous closure of Stone Academy.  

It is undisputed that Stone sought to wind down in an orderly manner, proposing multiple teach out plans to avoid any disruption to its student body, but OHE ordered the closure to occur within two weeks without any teach plan in place.  Remarkably, fully five months after Stone’s closure, OHE has still not organized a teach out and continues to hold students’ educations hostage while it conducts an illegal audit aimed at disenfranchising students of their lawfully earned credits.  The agencies actually responsible for regulating Stone – OHE and the Department of Public Health (DPH) – have never substantiated the phantom regulatory violations alleged in the Attorney General’s lawsuit.  Those agencies have completely bungled their regulatory responsibilities, approving programs and practices at issue in the lawsuit, misreading regulations and repeatedly in the last months altering their positions on applicable regulatory requirements.  

To date, Stone’s efforts have been focused on helping students, but this lawsuit will require Stone to aggressively seek to hold OHE’s leadership and other state officials accountable for their severe mismanagement of this matter and the harm they continue to inflict on hundreds of students and graduates.  

We will respond in more detail in court at the appropriate time.”

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