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Last updated on April 20, 2014 at 17:20 EDT

Man’s Many Schools Share Question of Legitimacy

April 1, 2007

By Brandon Stahl, Duluth News-Tribune, Minn.

Apr. 1–The schools Stephen Thomas has run in the past have many similarities to his current school, the Romano Byzantine College — including questions about legitimacy.

In 2000, after a Romano Byzantine College graduate called Duluth police saying she had been scammed out of $15,000 from the school, officers found at least four more people who said they were defrauded out of $30,000 through the school, according to police records.

One woman, Kathleen Blumenstein of Oostburg, Wis., told the News Tribune she was studying yoga and Pilates and wanted to enhance her education by pursuing an alternative medicine degree. Blumenstein said she was only sent books she “could have gotten anywhere else” with no training or education.

“I found out they were fakes,” she said. “Just a couple of guys passing off degrees they knew nothing about.”

Thomas never was prosecuted.

Duluth police Sgt. Ted Jazdzewski, the lead investigator on the case, sent his findings to the St. Louis County attorney’s office, but the office declined to investigate, saying it was more appropriate to be reviewed by either the Minnesota or Wisconsin attorney general’s office.

Neither office took the case. Each said the school wasn’t in their jurisdiction.

That is because the school, since the late 1990s, has been under the oversight of the State Council of Higher Education for [the state of] Virginia, where Timothy Kjera, the church’s bishop, said the school is headquartered and keeps all of its files and records.

However, the Rev. Harold Hammond, who lives at the Virginia address where the school is registered, said that while at one point he had a connection with the school, he never has had any of the college’s records or files.

“I have nothing to do with the school,” he told the News Tribune.

After speaking with the News Tribune, Hammond said two weeks ago he sent an e-mail to the Romano Byzantine College asking that all ties with the school be severed. He said he also sent a letter the state of Virginia stating he has no involvement with the school.

Despite the letters, Hammond still is listed as the “administrative rector” on the college’s Web site.

During an interview on Feb. 22, Kjera insisted that all of the school’s files and documents are kept in Virginia and that there has been “no wrongdoing” at the school.

“The Syro-Russian Orthodox Catholic Church and its affiliated organizations have not broken any laws, neither those of the church nor those of this land,” Kjera later wrote to the News Tribune in an e-mail. “The press has the right and the responsibility to report facts. Any attempts to manufacture news or to print undocumentable facts will be met with appropriate legal action.”

HISTORY

While Thomas denies any wrongdoing and said he is the victim of a history of misunderstandings and over-aggressive prosecutors, the Duluth police investigation wasn’t the first time he had been accused of running an illegitimate school.

Dr. Stephen Barrett, a retired psychologist and senior vice president of the National Council on Health Fraud, came across advertisements from the Gary, Ind.-based American Nutritional Medical Association in 1983.

It was, he wrote on his “Quackwatch” Web site, “the most elaborate ‘paper conglomerate’ of phony health-related credentials” he has ever encountered. Barrett said he signed up for the school under an assumed name and was able to obtain degrees for money without taking any type of training.

“They just sold pieces of paper,” he said.

The leader of the school? Stephen Thomas.

Thomas later moved to Colorado and started Notre Dame de Lafayette University. A television news reporter investigated the school and signed up her golden retriever, who was able to get a degree in “Christian counseling.” That prompted the state to open an investigation which found serious problems with the school, such as offering health degrees not related to a religious institution, a violation of state law.

In 1994, the school signed an agreement with the Colorado attorney general’s office to cease selling degrees in the state and offer enrolled students a full refund.

When the school violated that agreement, the attorney general’s office ordered them out of the state, according to an Aug. 14, 1994, Minneapolis Star Tribune article.

The school reappeared in Long Prairie, Minn., where, according to the Star Tribune, students of the school were told to send their money.

In the late 1990s, Romano Byzantine College emerged in Duluth. Now, along with religious degrees, the school offers a variety of licenses in such health-related fields as “aroma & herbal healing” and “fitness and meditation.” It also offers a doctor of chiropathy, which, according to a Web site affiliated with the school, combines “spiritual counseling and prayer” and “therapy, meridian healing, nutrition education, herbology, anointing, and holistic behavioral modification.”

In an interview last month, Thomas acknowledged that many people have complained about being scammed by him, but said, “There are many more who are very satisfied with what they’ve received.”

BRANDON STAHL covers health. He can be reached at (218) 720-4154 or by e-mail at bstahl@duluthnews.com.

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Copyright (c) 2007, Duluth News-Tribune, Minn.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.

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