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'We were taken advantage of': Students at Baltimore job training nonprofit raided by FBI worry about future

Federal law enforcement agents fanned out Thursday across Baltimore, raiding City Hall, Mayor Catherine Pugh's house and several other locations as the investigation into her business dealings widened.

After federal agents raided a job training center with ties to Mayor Catherine Pugh, state officials removed the center from a list of approved training providers for certified nursing assistants, prompting concerns among students there about whether they would be able to complete their courses and receive certifications.

The Maryland Center for Adult Learning was closed Thursday as FBI and IRS officials confiscated evidence at the Northwest Baltimore school, which trains aspiring certified nursing assistants, geriatric nursing assistants and medical technicians. Agents also executed search warrants at Pugh’s homes, Baltimore City Hall and several other locations, marking the first sign of a federal investigation into a widening scandal surrounding Pugh’s business dealings.

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The center, known as MCAT, remained closed Friday, when the state removed the program from its list of eligible training providers after confirming its certification had lapsed. MCAT’s approval to conduct that training expired nearly a year ago in May, according to the Maryland Board of Nursing.

The lapsed approval came as a shock to students like Christie Buckles, 29, who was training through MCAT to become a certified nursing assistant and medical technician. She was not aware the program’s approval with the state nursing board had expired.

“I feel like we were taken advantage of, and I spent so much time away from my family, and everyone around me sacrificed to see me succeed in it,” Buckles said. “It’s kind of really upsetting — I don’t even know where to start over again.”

She was one of more than a dozen students who were surprised to find MCAT shuttered on Thursday morning as the FBI and IRS seized boxes of evidence from the nonprofit.

Though a message on MCAT’s answering machine indicated the center would reopen Monday, officials at the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development were already searching for new placements for MCAT’s students.

“We are reaching out to the students,” said Jason Perkins-Cohen, executive director of the employment development office. “We’re here to help anyone looking to work.”

Since Pugh became mayor in December 2016, the city has awarded the organization $28,649 — mostly from a federal Department of Labor program and local casino money — to provide nurse training through last June. The city funds pay for training of 12 students, Perkins-Cohen said.

MCAT was also a “training partner” with the Baltimore City Department of Social Services, whose case workers recommend people to various training programs, a spokeswoman said. Perkins-Cohen said the employment development agency would stop referring people to MCAT.

”I doubt they’ll ever open again,” he said.

Several students said they were referred to the program through the mayor’s office or the social services agency. It’s unclear how many trainees have passed through the program since its certification expired, or whether they obtained job placements after graduating. A spokesman for the Department of Social Services could not immediately provide that information.

It's kind of really upsetting — I don't even know where to start over again.


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Buckles said she receives about $600 a month from the city’s Department of Social Services — funding that is contingent on her participation in the workforce training program.

“Hopefully by the time we graduate we don’t need to be dependent on the system anymore,” she said. “We could go to work and, you know, do things the right way and make our own money.”

Buckles was preparing to take her board exam May 2. But with the center’s closure, it’s unclear whether she will be able to complete her training.

“A lot of us don’t really have a lot, so we’re trying to make our lives a little better,” she said, “and now we’re worried about getting our certification.”

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MCAT has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from city, state and federal government agencies to provide training during the past decade. Pugh sat on MCAT’s board of directors from as early as 2001 through 2017 — most recently as its chairwoman, according to government records.

Three people listed as board members on MCAT’s website — Gary Brown Jr., Poetri Deal and Afra Vance-White — had jobs in the Pugh administration until Acting Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young fired them this week. And the center’s executive director, Roslyn Wedington, was convicted of stealing nearly $852,000 from a previous employer, according to court records. She could not be reached for comment.

Octavia Dove (left) and Sheikess Lyles-El (right) showed up at the Maryland Center for Adult Training to find it closed Thursday
Octavia Dove (left) and Sheikess Lyles-El (right) showed up at the Maryland Center for Adult Training to find it closed Thursday (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

MCAT’s 10-week programs typically run 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday through Friday and cost $1,500, according to the state’s website listing programs. Octavia Dove, a 26-year-old student in the certified nursing assistant and geriatric assistant program, and 26-year-old Nawja Shivers are in a course with a roster of about a dozen students; it began March 26 and runs through June. Several more trainees are enrolled in a separate program that was slated to wrap up next week.

“It’s people who come here that’s trying to better their lives to make more money for their children, to provide for their children,” Shivers said.

Students were not notified of the closure before they came to the center Thursday. Instead, they were greeted by a hand-written sign posted on the building’s door that read, “MCAT CLOSED TODAY.”

“When I walked up here, I was like, I wasted my gas coming up here,” Dove said Thursday morning outside the center.

On Friday, she said she didn’t bother making the drive.

“I hope they don’t shut this program down because it’s awesome,” Dove said. “If they close it down, then all of us are gonna have to come up with a plan B.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this article.

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