EXCLUSIVE: Education Department Official Implicated in Widening Student Loan Scandal

Blog Post
April 4, 2007

Higher Ed Watch has learned that a top Education Department official held at least $100,000 worth of stock in a student loan company that may have substantially benefited from its ties to him.

According to a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filing by Education Lending Group (see chart on page 18), the Education Department official, Matteo Fontana, held at least 10,500 shares in Student Loan Xpress as of September 2003. Fontana is currently in charge of overseeing lenders and guarantee agencies that participate in the Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP). Mr. Fontana's shares were offered for sale at just under $10 per share in September 2003, according to SEC filings. The extent of his total holdings in September 2003 and today is unknown.

Mr. Fontana, who is a good friend of Student Loan Xpress's president Fabrizio "Breeze" Balestri, joined the Education Department in November 2002 and was put in charge of the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS), a gigantic computer database that keeps track of the student aid awards of tens of millions of students who have received federal financial aid.

It's unclear whether Mr. Fontana disclosed his stock holdings -- which he held for almost a year while at the Department -- to his superiors at the agency. Mr. Fontana didn't return Higher Ed Watch's calls.

Meanwhile, the Education Department released a statement late on Thursday that didn't address whether Mr. Fontana had made the disclosures. "The Department takes this matter very seriously and our Office of the General Counsel is actively reviewing it," Samara Yudof, a spokesperson for the agency stated.

What is clear is Student Loan Xpress, which started in 2001 primarily as a student loan consolidation company, stood to benefit significantly from having such a close colleague in charge of NSLDS, which includes detailed personal data on individual federal student-loan borrowers.

According to several key sources, civil service employees at the Education Department have long complained that officials in charge of the Federal Student Aid office allowed loan consolidation companies to mine NSLDS records so they could steal away borrowers from the Department's Direct Student Loan Program.

Over the last five years, private lenders have been extremely aggressive in marketing consolidation loans to Direct Loan borrowers, offering them rebates on fees and interest rates that the government does not match, despite the fact Direct Loans are less expensive for taxpayers than the FFELP alternative. According to Education Department data, as reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education, close to 800,000 Direct Loan borrowers, with a total debt of about $17 billion, left the Direct Loan program between 2003 to 2005 to refinance their loans with private loan providers, such as Student Loan Xpress.

The misuse of NSLDS by companies marketing consolidation loans and other entities appears to have been so rampant that the Department's Inspector General sent a memo to Terri Shaw, the Chief Operating Officer of the Federal Student Aid office, in 2005 demanding that the office limit access to the database. As a result of the Inspector General's prodding, Mr. Fontana sent out his own notice to lenders warning them that NSLDS information was not to be used for "the marketing of student loans or other products."

Revelations that Mr. Fontana owned a stake in Student-Loan Xpress come a day after Higher Ed Watch uncovered that financial aid administrators at three major universities had received significant shares of stock from the company. As a result of our investigation, Columbia University placed its aid director, David Charlow, on leave pending a full review by the institution. Columbia also alerted New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to our findings. Mr. Cuomo promptly issued a subpoena to Columbia University and sent letters to the other two universities in question -- the University of Southern California and the University of Texas at Austin -- seeking more information about the administrators' stock ownership.

Higher Ed Watch continues to believe that the problem of corruption in America's student loan system stems from excessive taxpayer subsidies going to the student loan banking industry instead of families and needy kids.

This problem has to be addressed at its root.

Michael Dannenberg, Editor of Higher Ed Watch, contributed to this report.