David Jang Trafficked Olivet University Students, Lawsuit Claims

Newsweek/February 2, 2024

By Naveed Jamali AND Alex J. Rouhandeh

Agroup of former Olivet University students is suing Christian Pastor David Jang and the university, saying they were victims of an international labor trafficking scheme run by Jang and his disciples.

The students say they were offered scholarships to study at Olivet University, which Jang founded in 2000. When they arrived in the United States from Venezuela, India and Spain on student visas obtained through the university, they were required to do manual labor for which they were never paid, according to the lawsuit filed in Riverside County, California.

Jang did not respond to a request for comment. Olivet University denied the allegations and has countersued the students for "fraud and deceit." Olivet also has legal disputes with Newsweek, whose owners are former members of the sect.

Some members of Jang's sect, the World Olivet Assembly, have been in legal trouble for much of the past decade, including a money laundering probe in Manhattan which ended in several guilty pleas; a counterfeit goods case in North Carolina; a racketeering suit in Texas and numerous tax and business disputes around the country.

This lawsuit covers some of the same ground as a current federal investigation into Olivet University. The investigations arm of the Department of Homeland Security is looking into whether Olivet University and Jang's disciples committed labor trafficking, visa fraud and money laundering, Newsweek has reported.

One of the plaintiffs in the civil suit, Rebecca Singh, played a key role in drawing the attention of federal agents to Olivet. In March 2018, Singh called 911 and said she was being held against her will at Olivet's campus in Anza, California, Newsweek has previously reported. That call and her subsequent escape from Olivet University eventually led to the years-long federal investigation.

The plaintiffs—Singh, Dawin Liranzo Galan, Roland Broccko and Minerva Ruiz—"were each promised fully-paid scholarships, including tuition, room and board, and all course materials," the lawsuit says. "They arrived hoping to fulfill their dreams. What they experienced was a nightmare."

Once inside the remote Anza campus in California's high-desert region, some students had their passports and other identification documents taken away, the suit alleges. They were put to work unloading containers, assembling furniture, painting, landscaping, and even cleaning Jang's residence.

The students say they were not paid for this work and documents attached to the plaint include signed timesheets that appear to show Olivet treated them as employees working 40 hours a week. If true, that would violate the weekly work-hour limits imposed on most student visas.

"Defendants intended to cause each of the Plaintiffs to believe that failure to perform or provide labor services would result in them owing a debt to Olivet," the lawsuit claims.

The students were effectively confined to the Anza campus, the lawsuit said. The weekly shopping trip to the town of Temecula, a 40-minute drive away, was always supervised. Students paid Olivet for the trip in an Olivet van. Any other trips outside campus needed to be approved by Olivet employees, according to the suit.

In March 2018, Singh called law enforcement and stated that she had not been allowed to leave the Anza campus for months, the lawsuit says. Newsweek and the San Bernardino Sun reported how she and other students eventually left the campus and went to the authorities. Newsweek did not name Singh at the time; the San Bernardino Sun did.

Agents from Homeland Security Investigations eventually raided Olivet's campus in April 2021 and seized computers in what law enforcement officials told Newsweek was an investigation into visa fraud, labor trafficking and money laundering.

"The investigation into Olivet is ongoing," a spokesman for Homeland Security Investigations told Newsweek on February 1.

While Jang has not been named in any previous criminal proceeding in the United States, an HSI investigator has asked a witness for information on former Olivet members featured in a video circulated online by a group critical of Jang that accuses him of some of the same actions detailed in the suit. Newsweek has reviewed the correspondence between a witness and an investigator. The World Olivet Assembly said the allegations in the video were false and defamatory.

Newsweek's co-owners Dev Pragad and Johnathan Davis are former Olivet members. Pragad, who is president and CEO, announced in 2022 that he had left the sect; Davis followed suit in 2023. Their departures triggered a series of lawsuits, some of which involve Newsweek and are making their way through the courts.

Olivet has repeatedly characterized Newsweek's reporting of these events as unfair.

"You know well that your publication's coverage has created a false narrative, portraying widespread controversy when, in reality, the noise stems solely from Newsweek's reporting," Olivet University said in an emailed statement Wednesday.

"Inaccurate statements, such as the claim of 'human trafficking' at Olivet University, have been disseminated by Newsweek without factual basis, raising serious questions about the publication's commitment to responsible journalism," it said.

Newsweek has denied these allegations.

Olivet confirmed that the plaintiffs were students at the college but denied that it made them work without pay.

"The truth is that the students in question volunteered at student clubs, seeking pocket money for personal items—a far cry from the serious allegations you are attempting to propagate," Olivet said, adding that it was countersuing the plaintiffs for fraud. It said an internal investigation had concluded that the timesheets were forgeries.

Olivet's cross-complaint says that in "applying to Olivet University for admission and scholarship, [plaintiffs] gave assurances they intended to pursue an education for the purpose of entering missions or ministry work."

Olivet University President Matthias Gebhardt, who is among the defendants, did not respond to Newsweek's requests for comment.

The lawsuit comes at a critical time for Olivet University, which was expanding rapidly across North America before its legal troubles began. The college has now been shut down or placed under review in at least 10 states and territories. And it faces two key tests in the coming months.

Olivet University's accreditation expires at the end of February. The sole accreditor, the Association for Biblical Higher Education, placed the college on warning in November and gave it until February to provide evidence that it "demonstrates integrity in all of its practices and relationships with strict adherence to ethical standards."

In April, an administrative hearing will determine whether California will shut down the school for 14 alleged violations of state rules.

The California complaint against Olivet was filed to the state's Department of Consumer Affairs by state Attorney General Rob Bonta after representatives of the Bureau of Private Postsecondary Education for the State of California inspected Olivet campuses in late 2022.

Olivet said the list of violations at the heart of that complaint had either been addressed "or stemmed from misunderstandings."

Department of Consumer Affairs Deputy Director of Communications Monica Vargas and Executive Director of ABHE's Commission on Accreditation Lisa Beatty did not respond to Newsweek's requests for comment.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.

Educational DVDs and Videos