TROUBLE IN PARADISE
Kris Jenner and the Shady Crew Behind Her $105,000-a-Year Business School
The Kardashian matriarch is lending her name to a gilded business school—but New York state claims it’s just the latest rebrand of a troubled European institution.
Tuition at the Legacy Business School in Trump Tower runs up to $105,360 per year for a certificate. The price may be eye-popping, but the first 100 students accepted and enrolled will get a chance to sit down for an “exclusive dinner” with the school’s public face and chairman of the board: Kris Jenner, the matriarch of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
“Ambition is what drives us. Passion is what keeps us up at night. The impact we want to make? Now that’s what guides us to our success,” Jenner purrs on Legacy Business School’s website, in a video flanked by promotional materials featuring stock photos of splashing liquid gold, diamonds, and the vistas of Trump Tower.
“The future is waiting. What’s your legacy?” she asks.
According to Legacy Business School’s founders—that would be Jenner and CEO Alessandro Nomellini—it is a brand new institution, set to launch in New York in September, with a satellite campus opening in Dubai shortly thereafter.
But Legacy Business School may be new in name only. In fact, a Daily Beast investigation has revealed claims by the New York State Education Department (NYSED) that the school is actually the rebranded European School of Economics (ESE)—a for-profit organization that has been sued a dozen times in the U.S. alone since 2006 for failing to make good on their debts, and one that the department had been trying for years to stop from operating without legal approval.
ESE was originally founded in Italy in 1994 by former pop star Elio D’Anna and his brother Stephano. By the 2000s, it had set up campuses all over Europe and was aiming for a presence in the United States. Starting in 2005, it offered British bachelor’s and master’s degrees via its partnership with the U.K.’s University of Buckingham (that relationship was terminated in 2014)—but even though the degrees may have been valid, according to NYSED, the school was never granted permission to legally operate as a campus in New York state.
The New York State Education Department states that “any operation in the State by an out-of-state institution requires… prior permission” from the Board of Regents. Yet, according to NYSED spokesman Jonathan Burman, “To the best of our knowledge, ESE never submitted an application for either permission to operate or for degree authority.”
All the while, the school continued advertising to students—one 2013 Facebook post declared, “Take a Masters Degree in New York awarded by the University of Buckingham and allow the city to catapult you to your professional dreams!”—and handing out bachelor’s and master’s degrees through 2016, according to the school’s director of operations.
State education officials say ESE filed paperwork to become a non-degree granting institution just this year—and then applied to change its name to Legacy Business School.
Legacy shares a phone number, address, and CEO with ESE. In an interview with The Daily Beast, the director of operations at ESE contended that the schools were not the same, but would not elaborate when asked whether the two share the same staff or curriculum.
In addition to its Trump Tower presence, Legacy Business School is also operating a campus in Dubai, which kicked off with a fêted press conference last month, featuring Jenner, Nomellini, and Kardashian reality show producer Carla DiBello.
“As someone who always expects the best, I was drawn to Alessandro’s concept of a white-glove business school, offering the finest amenities, with luxuries that you’d expect from a school created for the global elite,” Jenner said at the event. And soon after, the school released a glowing statement from Jenner: “My passion for entertainment and fashion in particular is what had led me to the institution… in my role, I look forward to supporting the executive team in expanding Legacy Business School’s connections across the industries.”
DiBello announced that Jenner is also a media ambassador and someone who would appoint more board members to Legacy Business School, according to The National.
It is unclear whether Kris Jenner knew of ESE’s troubled past under her new business partner Nomellini. It is also unclear whether the Kardashian matriarch was aware of the state’s claims that Legacy Business School is merely a rebrand of ESE. Repeated calls and emails to Kris Jenner and her associates for comment had not been returned by press time. Requests for comment from Legacy Business School and ESE were repeatedly ignored or denied.
Getting answers about the relationship between Legacy Business School and ESE has not been easy. When a Daily Beast reporter initially called to request an interview, a man identifying himself as Marco offered a tour that same day. Fifteen minutes later, Marco called back. He regretfully had to cancel, Marco said—the school’s staff was going to be in meetings all day. He offered to reschedule later in the week.
A day later, Marco claimed that Nomellini, the school’s CEO, was “in L.A. with Kris Jenner” and wouldn’t be back for about 10 days—but he’d be open to an interview upon his return.
The next week, a vice president at Rubenstein Public Relations, Sana Javaid, emailed and called The Daily Beast. She was “handling PR for Legacy Business School” and while “the school is not quite open yet—so there isn’t an opportunity for tours right now,” she would be “happy to pass [questions] along and see if I can facilitate some responses for you.”
“The CEO’s schedule is so back-to-back with travel these days that it is very challenging to commit to anything at this time,” she added.
However, when a reporter called the school directly on the same day, Nomellini—the CEO himself—picked up. He quickly referred a request for comment to Angelica Matseyev, the director of operations for ESE.
When another reporter reached out to current ESE students on Facebook—the school still holds classes in buildings throughout New York City for what Matseyev says is about 40 students—Matseyev called The Daily Beast and said she’d been fielding complaints from “stressed out” students. If reporters promised not to reach out to any other students or faculty, Matseyev said, she would answer some questions over coffee.
“BG Restaurant on the seventh floor of Bergdorf Goodman. Do you know it?” she asked.
A day before the meeting at Bergdorf Goodman, Matseyev backed out. Her schedule, she said, had “become a bit over-booked for the next few weeks.”
The next day, two Daily Beast reporters went to the offices of ESE and Legacy Business School, located on the 19th floor of the Trump Tower, and asked for Nomellini.
A man at the front desk said, “sure,” and said to “give me one second.”
He walked into a conference room visible from the waiting area, waved in another suited man, and shut the glass door behind them. The suited man then came back out, smiled, and closed a large wooden door separating the reporters from the inner offices. Matseyev soon arrived, a wool camel trench coat draped over her model frame, perched expertly in 5-inch patent-leather Louboutins.
Coincidentally, Matseyev said she was heading off to the airport with Professor Marvin Don Tracy—the former director of ESE campuses in Spain and the U.K.—and that she could likely chat in a week’s time. But she had five minutes.
The conversation provided few answers.
When questions were raised during the short interview about ESE’s apparent transformation into Legacy Business School in New York, Matseyev said she’d forward them to an unnamed “person in the academic department.”
Matseyev insisted that the European School of Economics and Legacy Business School were two separate entities. The New York State Education Department spokesperson Jeanne Beattie, however, told The Daily Beast in an email that the European School of Economics “has applied to change its name to Legacy Business School.”
After the meeting ended, Daily Beast reporters sent an email asking for clarification to Matseyev, Nomellini, and the PR firm representing Legacy Business School.
The email went unanswered and repeated phone calls to all entities went unreturned.
Legacy Business School’s name may be new, but it’s being run by many of the same people who headed up ESE—and the European School of Economics has been on the radar of the New York State Education Department for quite a long time.
According to documents provided by NYSED, between 2006 and 2008, the state sent three cease-and-desist letters to the European School of Economics, to attempt to stop them from advertising and offering college courses and degrees.
“The Web site of the ‘European School of Economics’ continues to appear to be advertising its offering of college programs and degrees and uses the 212 area telephone number in New York City and New York street address (enclosed). You are doing so illegally, as you do not have authorization from the Board of Regents to operate in New York State,” NYSED coordinator Barbara Meinert wrote in 2008. “The New York State Education Department has grave concerns about the serious and pervasive nature of recurring findings.”
The 2008 letter unequivocally stated ESE’s status at that point: “The European School of Economics has no legal status as a college in New York state.”
In December of 2008, the school’s lawyer, Michael L. Kinum of Bond, Shoeneck, and King, PLLC, responded to one of the cease-and-desist letters, according to documents provided by NYSED, and claimed the school had no real academic presence in the state.
“Since ESE’s New York office serves a truly administrative or corporate function, all classes associated with ESE’s programs are held at the location of our partner school, the Manhattan Institution of Management (‘MIM’),” he wrote, referring incorrectly to the Manhattan Institute of Management (MIM), located on Williams Street in New York City. “I believe that the real key is to make clear that ESE does not have an ‘academic’ presence, as opposed to an administrative or corporate presence, in New York State.”
But even though ESE used its partnership with MIM to provide classrooms and teachers, according to the NYSED documents, it still needed state permission to operate and to advertise degree programs. And by 2009, according to MIM’s Director of Marketing Marc Nelson, the partnership between ESE and MIM had been terminated.
In 2010, according to an NYSED document, ESE was still lacking permission from the New York state Board of Regents to operate as a school in the state. A 2010 document from the New York state Board of Regents shows that ESE had met with NYSED staff, but the school had not given them a proposal to operate, as is required by law. The document lists all of the 14 out-of-state schools with permission to operate in New York state in 2010 by the New York Board of Regents. ESE was not listed as one of those schools, and was noted in a separate category of schools that had met with the board, but had not sent a legally necessary proposal to operate.
Jonathan Burman, a NYSED spokesman, said the 2010 meeting was “at the staff level” and “the meetings were not between the Board of Regents and ESE.”
Since then, NYSED said, it could not find any application for permission to operate in the state until ESE applied to become a non-degree granting institution in 2016.
“To the best of our knowledge, ESE never submitted an application for either permission to operate or for degree authority,” Burman told The Daily Beast.
But Angelica Matseyev, ESE’s director of operations, confirmed to The Daily Beast that ESE offered bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Buckingham until this year. (Even though the relationship with the University of Buckingham ended in 2014, students who had already enrolled were able to continue the program through the end, per the termination agreement. The last ones are set to graduate this June.)
There’s also evidence that ESE may have been running its own classrooms around the city during the years when the state claims the school had not yet applied for permission to operate.
In a 2015 email obtained by The Daily Beast, from Alessandro Nomellini to CollegeTimes.com founder Jesse Nickles—one that requested a takedown of a negative review of ESE on Oct. 6 of that year—the CEO insisted that ESE’s academic presence in Trump Tower was merely “under renovation” and that fall semester classes would be held there.
Nomellini was responding to a review that claimed ESE “pack[ed] you off to a salubrious building near Times Square which is where their shady partner school is.”
“Another false statement,” Nomellini claimed in his email. “Classes were hosted temporary [sic] at 245 West 38th Street due to renovation and classes are now in TRUMP TOWER. Semester start on October 15.”
There are no schools on 245 West 38th Street, but there are two proprietary schools on 248 West 35th Street. A representative named Peter Kolaczko at one of the schools, the New York Institute of English and Business, said his school had no affiliation with ESE.
The other school, TCS International—an English-language school with classrooms at the address—did partner with ESE for a time, according to Director Reggie Menos. On the International School of New York’s website—a name briefly adopted by ESE and then apparently abandoned (the school had the same address and phone number as ESE and its website, which used the exact same language as the ESE site, splashed photos of Jenner and Valentino at ESE’s gala as its main page banner)—a note explains that students were required to register for a “full-time Business Communication Program” at TCS International. But the receptionist at TCS told The Daily Beast there is no “full-time” program, and Menos said ESE students only took one class there.
“Some would say that [ESE] was trying to bypass regulations,” Menos told The Daily Beast when phoned in Miami and asked to explain the reasoning behind the partnership with his school.
According to Menos, who said he came on as director after the partnership was already in effect, and who said he canceled the contract with ESE around 2015, ESE required students to take an English class through TCS, but then taught other courses, off site, with their own curriculum and instructors.
“Whether or not [ESE] use those students and do more in terms of private classes, we don’t have control.
“The law—it’s a gray area,” Menos added. “We didn’t want to get involved with anything that wasn’t clear cut so we terminated the relationship.
“We definitely don’t want to have anything to do with them,” Menos said.
When asked why ESE was able to operate for all those years, seemingly without permission or consequence, another NYSED spokesman, Dennis Tompkins, told The Daily Beast that the department did not have the authority to shutter non-compliant schools, only to revoke licenses.
“We care. We just don’t have the authority,” he said. “We’re not law enforcement.
“Our job is to investigate licensed, authorized schools and, if you’re a bad actor, take away your license,” he said. If schools aren’t in compliance, Tompkins said the NYSED will “refer [schools] to the attorney general or law enforcement.”
When asked if the NYSED referred the school to Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office or law enforcement, Tompkins said he “thinks so.” But the New York State Attorney General’s office said it received no complaints from NYSED about the European School of Economics.
Meanwhile, just this year, according to NYSED spokesman Jonathan Burman, ESE submitted the requisite paperwork and can now function as a non-degree granting institution under the name to which the state says it successfully applied to change: Legacy Business School.
Legacy Business School is now in candidacy status, which allows for “a school to operate unlicensed for an initial period of twelve months during the licensure application process, which may be extended to a maximum, non-renewable period of eighteen months, under certain conditions.” This status allows the school to legally issue non-degree certificates until Jan. 12, 2017.
When asked why Legacy is allowed to apply for candidacy status when the state claims it is a rebranded name for ESE, which has been operating in New York for over a decade, Burman of the NYSED provided this statement:
“It’s important to note that the Department has no evidence that ESE ‘issued’ any degrees. We do know that ESE was advertising degree programs in [New York State] on their website. Our compliance letters addressed the representations made on ESE’s website concerning the advertising of academic programs leading to degrees in [New York State] and the representation of ESE as a ‘college’ in [New York State].”
During the years that requests from the state education authority were piling up, the European School of Economics was also incurring massive debts and defending itself from lawsuits.
Between 2006 and 2012, the European School of Economics racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debts from judgments and tax liens.
According to court records, those judgments in New York state include $88,930 to a marketing agency, $4,336 to a florist, $3,528 to a limousine company, $16,576 to educational services company Cengage Learning, $7,071 to a digital production company, and $92,000 in unpaid rent to the Empire State Building, from which court records show the school was evicted.
In 2013, the IRS came calling, and won a $111,005 tax lien against the international business school, online records kept by New York State’s Department of State show. And city and state tax collectors have come after ESE for more than $50,000 since 2008.
When the school’s foundation neglected to pay part of the $183,000 bill for its gala in 2012, and fell behind on a negotiated payment plan, the venue, New York’s famous Cipriani restaurant, sued for the balance. Michael Laufer, Cipriani’s attorney in the case, told The Daily Beast that the case “was resolved,” but would not provide further details.
That gala honored Donald Trump and Rick and Kathy Hilton with lifetime achievement awards presented by their children, and included a silent auction. A press release claimed money raised during the event would go to a scholarship fund for “deserving less fortunate American students to pursue the education of their choice.” The Foundation also claimed to be donating 30 percent of the Gala’s proceeds to the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City in support of Hurricane Sandy relief efforts.
But a list of donors to the Mayor’s Hurricane Sandy fund for the year following the gala provided by the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board showed no record of any donations coming from the European School of Economics Foundation, nor from any of its administrators.
Furthermore, according to IRS records, the European School of Economics Foundation had its tax-exempt status automatically revoked in May 2011 for its failure to file the required paperwork for three consecutive years, and there is no record of its reinstatement. There is an ESE registered charity in the U.K., but again, it has failed to file its financial disclosures with the charity commission. It is unclear then how and whether the foundation continued to collect donations, how much money it may have raised, and where those funds ultimately went.
Donald Trump later joined Kris Jenner at the school’s 20th anniversary ball at Trump Tower in 2014. Jenner hosted the star-studded event, where Baz Luhrmann, Valentino, and Coco Rocha walked the red carpet.
“This is a glamourous event, and it’s great for charity, and it’s a very easy commute for me,” Trump told The Daily.
Jenner and Trump aren’t the first household names that Nomellini has tried to attach to his business school. In 2006, The New York Times reported that Continental Airlines’ former CEO Gordon M. Bethune—beloved in business circles and among employees for saving a failing company—would lend his name to the school, featuring classes in the Empire State Building, as well as forthcoming campuses in Houston and Los Angeles.
“These guys talk like they get it,” Bethune said at the time of the decision to offer up his name to school founder Stefano D’Anna. (D’Anna once wrote a book called The School for Gods, wherein “a mysterious ‘Dreamer’ figure guides the author to create ESE,” according to Times Higher Education.)
ESE held a launch gala in October of 2006 honoring Bethune, Beyoncé, and President George H. W. Bush in Houston. Beyoncé and Bush did not show, but the school continued to promote them “as past honorees” in materials for future European School of Economics events. Representatives for Beyoncé did not respond to a request for comment. A representative for former president Bush confirmed he never attended the 2006 event or any others hosted by ESE.
In the end, despite the press releases, media stories, and parties celebrating ESE’s rebranded expansion, the Gordon Bethune School of Business never launched for reasons that remain unclear.
A spokesperson for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) said the European School of Economics never filed any paperwork to create the satellite school.
“Based on the 2006 media stories, the school would offer undergraduate and graduate degrees. Those must go through THECB,” said THECB spokesperson Kelly Polden. “There are no records of the institution in Houston.”
Bethune didn’t seem interested in revisiting the decade-old failed launch. Repeated phone calls and messages left for the ex-airline executive were not returned. His office did tell The Daily Beast that “there was never any formal association” between the European School of Economics and Bethune.
“[The Gordon Bethune School of Business] just never took off,” the representative said.
According to New York state’s first cease-and-desist letter to ESE dated Oct. 5, 2006, the non-launch of the Gordon Bethune School of Business appears to be what tipped off the state’s education department to ESE.
“The New York State Education Department has been informed by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board that the European School of Economics is advertising that it appears to be operating a college campus in New York State,” wrote Barbara Meinert, the NYSED coordinator.
“The European School of Economics must immediately cease and desist from advertising and offering programs leading to degrees from a New York and New York State address and cease from using the word ‘college’ in New York State. Such activities violate New York law.”
Around the same time, ESE was also facing a slew of legal battles in the States and abroad. Reports of lawsuits filed against the school’s European campuses, and noted in the Times Higher Education, go back to 2001, alleging a failure to pay staff and faculty who had to “hire a debt collector to obtain their salaries.” By 2014, their Madrid outpost, doing business under the name Exduco S.L., was declaring bankruptcy, with government, business, and employee creditors claiming over a million Euro in monies owed (PDF).
ESE lecturer Alessandro Gaj sued ESE Madrid in 2014, and won 25,100 euros—one year of back pay—plus interest and court costs from the insolvent school. When reached by The Daily Beast, Gaj called the school he taught at for years “shady,” saying he has yet to see a cent from his judgment.
“From what I know, very few [professors] recovered the money they were owed,” he said. “The company declared bankruptcy and that was the end of it.”
And in the U.S., in 2010, ESE’s then-admissions director Maria Ferla sued her employer, alleging she was owed money from promised commissions—8 percent of each student’s tuition—which according to the suit, was the way admissions officers earned the bulk of their salaries. Ferla said in addition to her base salary of $32,000 she was owed over $200,000 for recruiting students.
Both sides agreed to have the case dismissed in 2011. It is unclear what the details of any possible settlement were.
In another blow, the school had its U.K. bachelor degrees validated by the University of Buckingham until 2014, when the relationship was terminated “for strategic reasons,” according to the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, the agency that monitors higher education in the U.K. (PDF). When asked about the reason for the split with ESE, Diana Blamires, head of PR at the University of Buckingham, said, “We don’t have any comment on this at all.”
Twenty-one-year-old Daria Kurnygina came from Russia in 2014 to study business at ESE’s New York outpost. Though she speaks fondly of her time in New York, and the professors at ESE, she told The Daily Beast that the product didn’t match the cost, and she had no idea that the credits she earned at the business school would be meaningless when she transferred.
Kurnygina isn’t rich. So shortly after applying, when she learned of the yearly cost for an undergraduate degree—a little over $90,000 a year, she estimates, which didn’t include room, board, or any of the other expenses that comes with living in New York—she balked. But the admissions officers kept calling.
Then they offered her a scholarship: 65 percent off. “So $32,000. It was still expensive but I was so glad that they accepted me,” she said.
Kurnygina said that most of the students were like her, from outside the U.S. and attending ESE on a scholarship. “The first day you meet and they give you gifts—and then we went to Central Park and were chatting and talking about where everyone was from. Someone asked, ‘Who had scholarships?’ And I think everyone raised their hands. I don’t think anyone ever paid the whole amount.”
Her classes were tough, but the complimentary snacks and sodas really impressed her. The foreign-language school that shared space with ESE classrooms, she remembers, weren’t allowed to have any of the freebies.
There was even a student secretary whom she could email requests for lunch or coffee.
“She would bring it to my class! It was weird,” she said. “It was like you had a secretary. It made you feel important.”
If that feeling of luxury is, as Kurnygina says, what the school does best, then it all culminates in the gala.
“It was so much fun. The food was so amazing. We wore expensive dresses and drank champagne,” she said. “And all those people were around. But we couldn’t really talk or take pictures with the famous people, and not with Trump.
“I wish I could have met him and taken a picture.”
A fancy party with Donald Trump, free granola bars, the occasional limo ride, and private tours of museums and the United Nations still didn’t explain the hefty price tag, she said.
“I don’t think it should cost that much money. I don’t understand why it does. But when you are there, it feels like luxury,” she said. “Everyone is educated and they do stuff that impresses us. When you’re there they treat you like you are very rich.”
Of course, Kurnygina isn’t wealthy, and so when she was denied an additional tuition discount, she decided to transfer to an accredited, degree-granting school out of California, for half the price. But she had to start from scratch.
“I had no idea that I wouldn’t be able to transfer my ESE work. I thought if I studied in America, then the school was good,” she said.
“In [this new] school I learn more for less money. Still, [ESE] was very on-level. But then my credits didn’t transfer so maybe it wasn’t on-level.
“Anyway,” she added, “I’ll always remember the gala.”