The Allentown couple accused by the state of scamming foreign exchange students and area Christian schools out of more than $130,000 say the trouble stems from bad business moves, not illegal behavior.
“Finances are just not our cup of tea,” Tina Sweet said earlier this week.
She also denied allegations made by the state attorney general’s office in a lawsuit that she and her husband, Timothy, had subjected students to “substandard” conditions, including threats and forcing them to find their own way home from local malls.
Her husband said they wanted to do right by the students.
“We have the thing to help people,” he said. “That’s just our nature.”
The attorney general’s office filed its lawsuit against the Sweets last Thursday, the same day Lehigh County District Attorney James Martin confirmed his office is investigating the couple.
A man who didn’t identify himself answered the Sweets’ phone after the suit was filed said the Sweets weren’t there, and referred calls to their attorney. The attorney, Robert Rust, later agreed to set up an interview with his clients at their west Allentown home.
Tina Sweet said she decided to help find host families and schools for exchange students after hosting a Hungarian girl about 10 years ago.
She said she worked for various exchange agencies over the years, including a stint placing students in this region for a Texas-based nonprofit group called United Students Association.
While the Sweets were working for United Students Association, the group lost its certification to place students in public schools from the U.S. State Department.
The group can still place students in private schools through a separate visa program, which is subject to less government oversight.
Darlene Kirk, a spokeswoman for the State Department, said the group lost its certification because of complaints that students were brought to this country without arrangements for schooling or host families.
Tina Sweet and Moacir Rodrigues, United Students Association’s executive director, blame each other for those problems.
“They did not complete the job,” Rodrigues said. “The job was to place students in Christian homes … and to take care of them.
“I lost my designation because of what they did.”
Sweet said Rodrigues sent students here before she’d had time to find homes for them. She said she continued working with him out of “loyalty.”
“At that point, we were just trying to make matches,” she said.
Exchange students, sometimes as many as eight at a time, have stayed at the Sweets’ home over the years. The Sweets also have several children of their own and foster children.
Some of the students stayed in basement bedrooms. The Sweets declined to allow a Morning Call photographer to take pictures of the rooms, saying they’ve been changed into offices since then. They did allow a reporter and photographer to see the rooms, though, to verify they were finished and heated.
Sweet acknowledged that many of the allegations made in the state’s lawsuit are at least partially true, but said they lack the “context” to show students weren’t mistreated.
She said she did periodically threaten to send students back to their home country, for instance, but typically only did so to get students to behave.
She also said foreign students in her care went places unsupervised, but denied there’s anything wrong with that.
“Their parents sent them halfway around the world unsupervised,” she said. “Why can’t they go to the mall unsupervised?”
The Sweets set up their own company, which has been called both United Student Exchange and United International Studies, a little more than a year ago.
It has not been certified to place students in public schools; instead, it places students in schools such as Bethlehem Catholic High School, Lehigh Valley Christian High School and Faith Christian Academy in Sellersville, Bucks County.
According to court papers, the Sweets charged foreign students $3,500 to be placed in a school, another $2,500 to be paid to the host family, and additional money for tuition.
In its lawsuit, the attorney general’s office accused the Sweets of not passing along tuition and host family fees paid to them for dozens of students. The suit seeks to recoup those funds. The students were recruited by the Human Centre, a company with offices in South Korea and Australia.
Court papers say the Human Centre turned over records showing it referred 24 students and transferred nearly $134,000 by wire and check to the Sweets.
Tina Sweet said the records are faulty or faked.
“Anybody can create a spreadsheet,” she said.
She said it’s really the Human Centre that owes her and her husband money, claiming it never paid for many of the students.
She said she spent months forgiving bills left unpaid by Centre Chief Executive Officer Edwin Hong, thinking he’d eventually pay up; she also said she took $20,000 she’d gotten from other exchange students and used it to help cover various expenses.
“I don’t think what I did was wrong,” she said. “I think it was a bad business choice.”
Hong, in a phone interview from his office in Australia, said the records he gave the attorney general’s office are accurate.
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“I would be very stupid turning over something fabricated,” he said.
As the Sweets’ troubles developed, exchange students, area families who’ve hosted students and school officials have complained about their operation.
As part of the state’s legal filing, a judge issued an injunction barring the Sweets from bringing in any new students and largely freezing their bank accounts. There are no foreign students living with them now.
In a lawsuit, the state attorney
general’s office said Timothy and Tina Sweet, an Allentown couple who ran a business called United Student Exchange, did the following:
Improperly handled $130,000 meant to cover Christian school tuition and other expenses of foreign exchange students.
Subjected some students to
Left students unsupervised at malls on weekends.
Threatened to send students back home and to keep their money.