Herrera sues con artist ‘chef’ for cooking school fraud, wage violation scam

Dozens of Chinese immigrants defrauded of thousands for tuition, exploited for free labor by phony ‘Academie de Cuisine’

SAN FRANCISCO (April 5, 2011)—City Attorney Dennis Herrera today filed suit against a one-time convicted con artist whose latest fraudulent enterprise fleeced dozens of Chinese immigrant students of as much as $3,600 each in tuition payments for culinary training and paid externships. Instead of formal training, however, those enrolled in the so-called “Academie de Cuisine” were exploited for free labor, staffing catered events from which the scam’s operator appears to have profited. Herrera’s civil complaint filed in San Francisco Superior Court today identifies as defendants Angelo Mueller Degenhardt; his adopted alias, “Chef Angelo Mueller;” and the fraudulent operation based in the City’s South of Market neighborhood. Today’s suit is the result of a collaboration between City Attorney’s Office and students from UC Berkeley School of Law; the lawsuit seeks injunctive relief to halt the academy’s operation as well as civil penalties up to $2,500 for each violation; disgorgement of all profits; and full payment of all withheld wages to workers together with liquidated damages owed under San Francisco’s Minimum Wage Ordinance.

“Fraud is always bad, of course, but defrauding students who aspire to improve their work skills and better provide for their families takes an extra degree of maliciousness,” said Herrera. “Predatory schemes that victimize San Francisco’s immigrant community are far too common, and they too often go unreported to the City officials who can help. That’s why I’m enormously grateful for the efforts of UNITE HERE Local 2, Office of Labor Standards Enforcement, and the excellent news coverage provided by Sing Tao Daily and World Journal to bring these labor abuses to the City’s attention. The students victimized by this phony academy deserve justice, and we intend to fight for everything that’s owed to them.”

Herrera’s lawsuit details additional aspects of the scheme that include making false assurances to San Francisco non-profits to gain their assistance to do outreach to the Chinese immigrant community; luring certified cooking instructors to the school under fraudulent pretenses to lend credibility to the enterprise; and deliberately failing to fulfill promises made to students about paid externships and job placements.

In summer of 2010, Academie de Cuisine approached Chinatown non-profit organization Chinese Newcomers Service Center, or CNSC, with a proposed partnership to ostensibly help the Chinese immigrant community with job training and culinary arts skills. CNSC was to recruit and teach vocational English to students, while Academie de Cuisine taught cooking. Students, often monolingual Chinese and Cantonese-speaking immigrants, paid between $2,000 to $3,600 for the promise of a three-months formal teaching program and an additional three-month paid externship in one of ADC’s culinary venues.

But problems began to surface when students began to complain about such ADC business practices as: not following written curricula; requiring students to staff and manage ADC-sponsored functions without pay; demanding that students sign retroactive agreements stating that they understood they would not receive a Certificate of Completion unless they completed a 4-6 week unpaid externship and twenty-four hours of community service. Chef instructors also reported problems with the school’s management when Mueller ordered instructors to fail all of the students, to prevent them from being able to claim their entitlement to paid externships.

Mueller has an established history of engaging in fraudulent schemes. In 2003, the U.S. Attorney in Salt Lake City, Utah, indicted him on multiple counts of federal mail and securities fraud. He eventually pled guilty to charges that he swindled investors out of millions of dollars in connection with a fraudulent scheme to build a golf course. Mueller was placed on house arrest, but later violated the terms of his probation and was sent to federal prison. He entered prison in November 2007 and was released in February 2010. He remains on probation until February 2013.

The case is City and County of San Francisco and People of the State of California v. Academie de Cuisine LLC et al., San Francisco Superior Court Case No. CGC-11-509870, filed Apr. 5, 2011. Case documents are available on the City Attorney’s Web site at https://www.sfcityattorney.org .

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