Updated at 9:40 a.m. May 12, 2013
The co-founder of now-closed Aristotle University in Carlsbad has sued a state agency and others for $21 million, alleging a "comedy of errors" that led to "tarred reputations, lost political elections, hospitalizations, death and complete economic ruin."
Xanthi Gionis of Chula Vista--who took third in a special state Senate election in the South Bay--says her small school was wrongly shut in February despite having approval to operate through April 2015.
Named in the suit, filed Thursday in a Sacramento* federal court, are the California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education, several of its officers and a spokesman. [See attached PDFs.]
Gionis also is suing a fellow Republican--state Sen. Mark Wyland of Carlsbad--whose statements about the school being "just a diploma mill" she called derogatory and damaging.
"Perpetuating a pattern of carelessness, state regulators at the BPPE acted on 'tips' and 'innuendos' with absolutely no investigation as to the veracity of the tipster, or the allegations, perpetuating the dysfunction of certain regulatory agencies within the California Department of Consumer Affairs," Gionis said in a statement Thursday.
Responding to a Patch inquiry, Wyland said: "The Department of Consumer Affairs investigated and determined that students were being taken advantage of at Aristotle. The fact that the state shut down the school indicates there was a real problem and that people were right to be concerned. I am glad if my involvement helped protect consumers."
Mildred Lyon, Gionis' spokeswoman during the 40th Senate District campaign, said via email that "Xanthi was hospitalized twice during this entire ordeal and, regrettably, her father, Matthew, passed away on Thursday, May 2, 2013."
Matthew Gionis, who founded Aristotle University in 2006 along with his daughter, suffered a massive stroke in March 2011.
"He died knowing that the university ... had been wrongfully closed by the State of California and that his daughter was fighting to set the record straight and clear their name," Lyon said via email.
An additional lawsuit will be filed in San Diego Superior Court "within the next couple of weeks" alleging defamation, Lyon said Thursday.
Three months ago, Gionis held a press conference outside San Diego City Hall torebut allegations about Aristotle University that she called "horrifically false" and "politically motivated."
She responded to an NBC San Diego report that found the university wasn't certified with the state Bureau for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education and lacked a business license in the city of Carlsbad.
She slammed what she called "reckless reporting" by NBC San Diego, which she called "an alleged investigative report that is full of erroneous, easily verifiable information."
San Francisco attorney Keith R. Oliver filed the 23-page suit, which also targets a former nursing teacher in the public-health program at Aristotle University on Palomar Airport Road.
Karin Tausan, the teacher, worked for another defendant in the case--Pacific Health Education Center--and was "receiving work in the public health field through the center's contractual relationship with Aristotle University," the suit says.
The suit alleges that Tausan contacted political adversaries and opponents of Gionis as well as members of the Republican Party in Riverside, Imperial and San Diego counties "in order to tarnish plaintiff's reputation among her peers and preclude plaintiff from conducting a successful state Senate campaign."
Tausan's actions led to the loss of endorsements and campaign contributions, the suit says, "thereby derailing plaintiff's campaign, forcing her out of the state Senate race, and thereby destroying her reputation politically, professionally and personally."
In 2011 and 2012, Gionis was sued seven times in San Diego Superior Court, resulting in at least one small-claims judgment against her, online records show.
The court ordered Aristotle University Inc.* to pay Tausan $7,648, which Tausan told NBC San Diego were for loans to Gionis' campaign. Gionis also once ran for Congress in the 51st district and was endorsed by the local Republican Party.
Last November, Judge John Meyer in San Diego Superior Court dismissed a case involving a $30,000 suit by Pacifica Health and Medical after an out-of-court settlement between that nursing-services provider and Gionis.
Gionis won 4,852 votes--13.4 percent of those cast--in the March election to fill a vacancy created by Juan Vargas' election to Congress in the heavily Democratic district. Democrat Ben Hueso outpolled Republican Hector Gastelum 56.2 percent to 21.6 percent to win the seat in Sacramento.
Among other things, the Gionis suit cites violation of due process under the 14th Amendment, and violations of the Private Post Secondary Education Act of 2009, Education Code, business and professions code and breach of contract.
Comment is being sought from state authorities.
The case number is 2:13-cv-00912-JAM-CKD, and the case has been assigned to
Judge John A. Mendez.
*Editor's note: An earlier version incorrectly said a court ordered Gionis to pay Karin Tausan $7,648. The wrong court location also was cited.