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California

Owner of Koreatown schools pleads guilty in ‘pay-to-stay’ immigration scheme

Prodee University
U.S. Department of Homeland Security Investigations agents raid a Westlake school accused of being a front for a “pay-to-stay” immigration scheme providing fraudulent student visas.
(Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press)

The owner and operator behind a network of four Koreatown-area schools that authorities allege was actually a “pay-to-stay” immigration scheme pleaded guilty to federal charges Thursday, according to prosecutors.

Three people, including owner and headmaster Hee Sun “Leonard” Shim, 53, of Beverly Hills, were arrested in 2015 as authorities announced an indictment alleging that few of the hundreds of students enrolled actually attended the schools and that many in fact lived out of state and had never set foot on campus.

Shim and employees Hyung Chan “Steve” Moon and Eun Young “Jamie” Choi were accused of immigration offenses and conspiracy. Moon and Choi have already pleaded guilty and await sentencing.

Shim pleaded guilty to conspiracy and immigration document fraud and faces up to 15 years in prison when he’s sentenced on June 5, the U.S. attorney’s office said. He also had to forfeit $465,000 that was seized during the raids almost two years ago.

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The three operated schools that offered immigration paperwork to students for as much as $1,800 for six months, assuring them they did not need to attend classes. Among those listed as active students were people living in Las Vegas, Seattle, Dallas and Honolulu, according to an affidavit in the case.

Authorities paid routine, unannounced visits to the schools — Prodee University/Neo-America Language School; Walter Jay M.D. Institute, an Educational Center; the American College of Forensic Studies; and Likie Fashion and Technology College — and found that there were few, if any, classes in session. Some had only one to three students. An instructor told investigators that one of his classes, introduction to politics, regularly had zero students, according to the affidavit.

When officials asked for records for the students, Shim sent shoddy files that listed the same bank account number for multiple students and contained clear signs that they’d been doctored, according to the affidavit.

Investigators said they suspected the scheme brought in about $6 million a year.

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joseph.serna@latimes.com

For breaking California news, follow @JosephSerna on Twitter.

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