The former owner of Retail Ready Career Center — a for-profit trade school in Garland, Texas — was sentenced to 19 years in federal prison after defrauding Veterans Affairs out of millions of dollars.
In addition to Jonathan Dean Davis’ prison sentence, U.S. District Judge Brantley Starr ruled Sept. 1 that the 43-year-old will be required to forfeit the more than $72 million he illegally obtained, as well as pay an additional $65.2 million in restitution.
Davis’ sentencing comes months after he was found guilty April 15 of seven counts of wire fraud and four counts of money laundering by a federal jury.
His Nov. 20, 2020, indictment included an additional two counts of aggravated identity theft and aiding and abetting.
Acting U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas Prerak Shah was the lead prosecutor for the case against Davis.
“We are grateful to the jury for their time in helping us bring this defendant to justice,” Shah said in a statement. “To undermine the VA is to insult the incredible sacrifices made by U.S. military veterans.”
Ready Retail was raided by the FBI in September 2017, with a cohort of students two weeks into their six-week course.
The trade school was marketed to students from around the country who were looking to get into the Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning career field. They had been promised lucrative jobs and high-level training, but instead, many were undertrained in the skills needed for entry-level HVAC positions.
Jordan Beckwith, a student veteran at Retail Ready at the time of its closure, recounted the event for CBS Dallas-Fort Worth.
“We see a bunch of federal agents surrounding the school,” he said. “We ask what’s going on and they’re like, ‘You’re not in trouble. We’re just investigating the school.’”
By 2019, the closure had resulted in 80 Retail Ready employees losing their jobs, 300 students with incomplete training and nearly $5 million in assets seized.
“This was a second chance for me,” Donovan Staffieri, an Army student veteran at the school also told CBS Dallas-Fort Worth in 2017. “I still have bills I have to pay. I quit a job to come up here.”
Veterans that testified at Davis’ trial said they had been, “taken advantage of,” and felt “used” and “bamboozled.”
They also testified about how stunned they were at how much Ready Retail had depleted their GI Bill benefits.
‘More lying is in order’
Davis “who was essentially broke at the time of the crime, realized he could charge $18,000 to $21,000 per student for the 6-week course,” a press release from the the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Texas stated.
Davis’ scheme relied on GI Bill tuition payments. But before his school could be approved by the VA to receive those checks, he first needed to get cleared by the Texas Workforce Commission and the Texas Veterans Commissions.
“Several decisions lie ahead that will ultimately make the difference if I succeed or if I fail,” Davis wrote in an electronic journal. “More gut-wrenching conversations, more humiliating experiences, more lying is in order.”
Davis’ electronic journal, which he kept on his computer, was recovered by federal agents when they searched the school. It became a key piece of evidence at trial, according to the Justice Department.
To obtain approval from the VA, the TWC and the TVC, schools must prove they are established educational institutions with stable financial conditions and school officials not facing criminal charges.
Davis lied about not being the subject of any civil actions, despite facing multiple suits regarding unpaid debts and a pending felony charge for theft of services.
He submitted falsified financial statements to the TWC and TVC, and even lied to an independent accountant regarding the center’s financial situation, according to prosecutors.
Davis also lied about the school’s official standing. At the time, Ready Retail had only existed for a few months — instead of the required two years needed for approval — and no students had ever been trained there, according to prosecutors.
After fraudulently obtaining approval from the TWC and the TVC, Davis received VA approval and began specifically recruiting student veterans in 2014.
At one point, more than 85 percent of the student body were veterans and the VA was paying more than $6 million per six-week cohort to Ready Retail, according to Forbes.
The federal jury took seven hours to deliberate before finding Davis guilty on 11 of the 13 charges.
“[The] jury found that Mr. Davis lied to multiple government agencies, lining his pockets with veterans’ GI Bill benefits even as they were struggling to scrape by,” said Shah, the U.S. attorney. “Mr. Davis’ crimes were a slap in the face to the sacrifices made by our servicemembers, and we are proud to put him behind bars for such a significant period of time.”
The investigation into Davis and RRCC was conducted by the VA’s Office of Inspector General, the FBI’s Dallas Field Office and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service’s Forth Worth Field Office.
The VA did not respond to inquiries into the status of benefit reimbursement for veterans impacted by the time of publishing.
However, veterans affected by school closures and discreditation may be entitled to benefit reimbursement under the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017.
Rachel is a Marine Corps veteran, Penn State alumna and Master's candidate at New York University for Business and Economic Reporting.