As chief compliance officer for a corporate owner of for-profit colleges, Robert S. Eitel spent the past 18 months as a top lawyer for a company facing government investigations, including one that ended with a settlement of more than $30 million over deceptive student lending.
On Friday, Eitel — on an unpaid leave of absence — was working as a special assistant to the new secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, whose department is setting out to roll back regulations governing the for-profit college sector.
The department says Eitel has conferred several times with the agency’s ethics officer to avoid conflicts. But it says he is not precluded from having a voice on general issues and regulations that affect the sector.
Ethics experts said Eitel’s position, which has not been announced publicly, could nonetheless bump up against federal rules involving conflicts of interest and impartiality, particularly given his position as a vice president for regulatory legal services at Bridgepoint Education Inc., an operator of for-profit colleges, during federal investigations into the company.
Eitel, an Education Department lawyer under President George W. Bush, has been a critic of federal regulation of for-profit colleges under the Obama administration.
A department spokesman, who requested anonymity, said Eitel would recuse himself from any policy decisions or discussions related to Bridgepoint and another former employer, Career Education Corp.
Guidelines from the Office of Government Ethics bar federal employees from engaging in decisions directly affecting a company in which they have any financial interest.
Bridgepoint — a publicly traded company that operates Ashford University and University of the Rockies — enrolls roughly 50,000 students and primarily offers online degrees.
The Justice Department, according to a Bridgepoint filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, is investigating whether the company violated Education Department limits that bar it from receiving more than 90 percent of its revenue in federal student aid.
In September, Bridgepoint reached a settlement with the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to refund students $23.5 million and pay an $8 million civil penalty to resolve an inquiry into whether students were deceived into taking out private student loans that cost more than advertised. Bridgepoint neither denied nor admitted the allegations.