‘Extortion’: BYU-Pathway president’s ‘restorative justice’ company broke civil law

The firm shut down, but Brian Ashton landed on his feet when friend and fellow Harvard alum Clark Gilbert, who oversees the LDS Church’s education system, called him up.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Brian Ashton co-founded and ran a "restorative justice" program whose practices, according to a 2017 court ruling, amounted to false imprisonment and “textbook extortion” under California civil law. Today, he serves as the president of BYU-Pathway Worldwide, the online education program of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints aimed at expanding access to affordable education to some of the world’s poorest people.

When Brian Ashton became the new president of Brigham Young University-Pathway Worldwide in 2021, the official announcement noted that the Harvard Business School alum had once “led an educational startup company focused on correctional and life skills education.”

The news release didn’t include what Ashton’s business, called Corrective Education Co., did: It contracted with chain retailers and security firms to offer customers whom the stores accused of shoplifting the choice of paying $400 to $500 for a video course aimed at preventing future thefts, or taking their chances with law enforcement.

CEC, launched around 2011, grew to make millions in annual revenue from some of the nation’s biggest retailers, including Walmart, Kroger and Bloomingdale’s, according to court documents.

But it closed up shop after a 2017 ruling that the program’s practices — detaining customers for longer than the law allowed retailers to do and collecting money in exchange for a promise not to call police — amounted to false imprisonment and “textbook extortion” under California law.

Ashton and his co-founders — fellow graduates of BYU and Harvard Darrell Huntsman and Glenn Bingham — said the company gave first-time shoplifters a chance at reform while preventing a potentially life-destroying scar on their rap sheet.

San Francisco’s then-city attorney, who filed a civil lawsuit against CEC, however, argued the company relied on high-pressure sales tactics and misleading statements about the criminal justice system to coerce individuals, regardless of their guilt or the strength of the evidence against them, to sign up for a program many could not afford.

In the end, a judge determined that whether CEC was a savior or a villain — as each side tried to depict it — was beside the point. No matter how well-intentioned the program may have been, he said, it violated California’s civil Unfair Competition Law when it conditioned suspects’ choice on the receipt of payment and functionally detained them for “an appreciable time” while they made their “Hobson’s choice.”

Between 2018 and 2019, roughly two years after the ruling, the company shuttered. The ruling, Bingham said, was a stake in the once-thriving business’s heart. Still, he said he and his former colleagues haven’t given up all hope. The judge left an opening in his ruling, noting that the Legislature could always pass laws that make an operation like CEC’s legal — a path Bingham said they’re exploring.

In the meantime, however, Ashton has landed on his feet, at least in part, thanks to a fourth Harvard Business School alum: Church Education Commissioner Clark Gilbert, a longtime friend. Ashton later replaced Gilbert as head of BYU-Pathway Worldwide, the online education program of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints aimed at expanding access to affordable education to some of the world’s poorest people.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Clark Gilbert was the president of what is now known as BYU-Pathway Worldwide when his friend and fellow Harvard Business School alum Brian Ashton came on as vice president of operations. In 2021, Gilbert took over as commissioner of the church’s entire portfolio of education systems, and Ashton became the second president of BYU-Pathway, a position he currently holds.

The origins and mission of CEC

According to Huntsman, the idea for CEC formed in response to a story he and Ashton heard about a newly promoted Army platoon leader who got caught stealing a fishing lure. The man’s mother pleaded with the store, where a Huntsman acquaintance worked, not to prosecute. An arrest and criminal charge would derail the man’s military career, she argued. The store went forward with the prosecution anyway.

Huntsman heard this story and, he said, agreed along with Ashton there had to be a better way.

That better way was CEC.

The Utah-based company, Ashton explained in a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune, provided retailers with “education courses” that stores could then offer to suspected shoplifters “as an alternative to going through the court system.”

“This restorative justice approach benefited the shoplifters,” he said, “who did not end up with a criminal record and received help to quit shoplifting, the retailers, who were able to reduce their theft and the cost of asset protection, and the police, [who] could focus on more serious crimes.”

Bingham, too, described the company as one with a purpose that looked beyond the bottom line.

Retail theft was, and is, he said, “getting out of control.” Someone needed to teach people that “the rule of law mattered,” he said, “and that starts with little things like shoplifting.”

Going ‘gangbusters’

Bingham recalled that Huntsman was the “employee/operating guy” while he and Ashton “were the ones putting together the whole company.”

Together, they landed contract after contract with some of the nation’s biggest retailers, according to court documents from an unsuccessful proposed class action lawsuit filed in 2018 by lawyers for three anonymous shoppers. The lawsuit accused the three men and retailers of racketeering. A federal judge dismissed claims against many of the companies on several grounds, finding, among other points, that the lawyers had not shown sufficient connections between them “to allege one single nationwide conspiracy.” The shoppers later dropped their claims against Huntsman, Bingham and Ashton.

Ashton took a leave of absence from the company to serve as president of the church’s Texas Houston South Mission from 2012 to 2015. And while he did not specify the years he worked at CEC, Bingham and Huntsman said Ashton took the company’s reins upon his return.

Neither Bingham nor Huntsman could recall exactly how many “students” enrolled in the program over the company’s lifetime, but a 2015 filing by the San Francisco city attorney pegged the number at the time at 20,000 nationwide.

The following years were big ones for CEC, which boasted $7.6 million in revenue in 2017 alone, according to the shoppers’ lawsuit.

Around that time, Bingham said, they were operating in 1,000 Walmart stores with thousands more due to come on line in coming months.

“The company,” he said, “was going gangbusters.”

There were also plenty of signs, Huntsman said, that the company was succeeding in its other mission — that of giving people the tools to make better decisions. As evidence, he cited a number of thank-you letters he said he received from program graduates, including one from a family member who credited CEC’s educational videos with helping save her loved one’s life by turning it around.

According to Ashton, less than 2% of enrollees who completed CEC’s course reoffended, and the company won multiple awards from the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

“There was no doubt,” Huntsman said, “it was a win for everyone.”

City attorney makes his case

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera saw the program differently. He argued that it manipulated the poor and vulnerable by depicting the absolute worst-case scenario — certain prosecution, steep attorney fees and jail time — as all but certain, regardless of whether the store even had evidence of a crime.

In a typical scenario, according to Herrera’s lawsuit, a security guard would escort individuals to a “secluded area in the back of the store.”

Once there, the guard would take the accused shoplifter’s mug shot and fingerprints, and cross-check the individual’s information against several databases, including one maintained by CEC, to determine if the person was a first-time offender and thus eligible for the program. If so, the guard would hit play on a video that assured the individual the store had videotape that would be “irrefutable” in court of the individual shoplifting, Herrera wrote — whether or not that was true.

“Right now, the agents who have detained you are preparing a case against you,” went a version of the video quoted in the proposed class action lawsuit. “They are gathering the evidence and making a record of this crime.”

It continued, “You need to know, the legal consequences of theft are serious, long lasting, and can include any or all of the following: police involvement, jail time, an expensive trial, high fines and even a permanent criminal record.”

Not outlined in these videos, Herrera said, was the existence in many California cities and counties of state-run programs that allow many first-time offenders to avoid a criminal record for free, the availability of free counsel, or the fact that prosecution was in no way a given.

Equally damning, Herrera said in his court filing, were the kickbacks CEC clients received for every “student” they enrolled. These payouts ranged from $10 to more than $100 per individual processed and, the city attorney argued, created a “powerful incentive to pressure” individuals regardless of evidence of their guilt into signing a confession.

That signed confession then would be shared with CEC, whose representatives used it to ensure payment after the fact. According to the suit, 90% signed the form.

Moreover, Herrera wrote, the payment system encouraged clients to target “not just individuals who may have shoplifted, but those who are most likely to fear getting turned over to police.”

‘I don’t want to go to jail’

Huntsman defended the program’s costs, which he noted were far less than hiring an attorney. He also said CEC offered a sliding-scale payment plan based on the person’s ability to pay, all the way down to free.

But transcriptions, cited in the shoppers’ lawsuit, of calls between CEC representatives and enrollees show program participants pleading for time, unable to afford the $50 they’re told will keep their case from being potentially turned over to law enforcement.

“I don’t know [how] I’m going to be able to get the money,” one individual is quoted in court documents as saying. “And I don’t want to go to jail.”

Says another: “I’m homeless.”

In one instance reported by the Los Angeles Times, a woman shopping at Goodwill was pressured into signing up for the program after “inadvertently neglecting” to pay for a few items that together totaled less than $7.

Another, described in court documents, found herself in a similar situation after leaving a Walmart self-checkout without scanning all the items in her cart, including hot dog buns and a case of water for her child’s birthday party.

(Business Wire) CEC's client list included nationwide retailers, including Walmart, Bloomingdale's and Kroger, among others. In a typical scenario, according to court documents, security guards would escort suspected shoplifters to a room in the back of the store. There they would give them a choice: Pay $400 to $500 for an "educational" program, or take their chances with law enforcement.

Concluded the San Francisco city attorney: “CEC wholly supplants the criminal justice system, allowing a single security guard to play the role of police, prosecutor, judge and jury.”

In his ruling, Judge Harold Kahn pushed aside the arguments from both camps about how they depicted the impact of the program. He zeroed in instead on what he said were two facts:

“No matter how well-intentioned, progressive, efficacious and/or thoughtfully designed or implemented, CEC’s diversion program has been, is now — and as long as it involves payment of money to CEC or the retailer — will always be extortion per California law,” he said, barring changes to the statute.

And detaining individuals for a time longer than “the purpose of investigating” possible crimes represents “black letter false imprisonment,” the judge wrote, adding that on this issue “the material facts are not in dispute and are entirely contained within Mr. Huntsman’s declaration.”

CEC’s demise

According to Ashton, CEC shut down after it learned the legal advice it had relied on was “inaccurate.”

Bingham, meanwhile, pinned the company’s demise directly on the judge’s ruling. He and Huntsman both agreed: The city attorney’s decision to file the case was entirely political.

“Before we would ever go into a jurisdiction, we would get permission from the district attorney or the prosecutor in the jurisdiction, from the sheriff and from the chief of police,” Huntsman said. “Everyone approved this. Everyone liked this.”

The San Francisco city attorney, he said, was “a political animal.”

The lawyer for the famously progressive metropolis wasn’t the only one to take issue with CEC’s program, however. Halfway across the country, in Indiana, a Tippecanoe County prosecutor said in 2017 that “using the power of law enforcement — threats of arrest and [the prosecutor’s] office — to compel [accused shoplifters] to take a class for a for-profit program… that fundamentally is against what American jurisprudence stand[s] for.”

A year later, the Hoosier State’s then-attorney general, Curtis T. Hill Jr., weighed in, agreeing with the concerns raised by the county prosecutor and the California judge. “Significant changes would have to be introduced and immediately implemented,” he argued, “in order for [the CEC] program’s operations to be regarded by us as lawful and ethically sound in Indiana.”

To Walmart’s “considerable credit,” Hill added, “this program has been voluntarily disengaged statewide.”

Ashton’s rise

Ashton, who served from 2015 to 2019 in the presidency of the church’s global Sunday school, didn’t have to worry about the company’s fate.

Around the same time the California judge made his ruling, he got a call from Clark Gilbert, who at the time was overseeing a major change in the way the church’s online education program operated.

“When I was in the Sunday School General Presidency, Clark Gilbert called me up,” he told Public Square Magazine in 2023. “We had been friends since we were students together at BYU. He called me a few days after a meeting — they’d decided to spin out Pathway from BYU-Idaho. I joined as the vice president of field operations.”

In 2021, Gilbert took over as commissioner of the church’s entire portfolio of education systems, and Ashton became the second president of BYU-Pathway, a position he currently holds.

“I have watched and admired them,” Gilbert said of Ashton and his wife, Melinda, during a speech he gave at his friend’s inauguration, “since we were university students together nearly 30 years ago.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) As of 2022, BYU-Pathway Worldwide served more than 61,000 students annually from more than 180 countries, according to its website. The online program offers certificates and degrees in partnership with BYU-Idaho and Ensign College in Salt Lake City. It is available to individuals regardless of their faith background.

As of 2022, BYU-Pathway Worldwide served more than 61,000 students annually from more than 180 countries, according to its website. The online program offers certificates and degrees in partnership with BYU-Idaho and Ensign College in Salt Lake City. It is available to individuals regardless of their faith background.

Summarizing his mission for the program, Ashton told Public Square Magazine that he viewed the work as fighting poverty by making top-tier education available to some of the world’s most disadvantaged.

“Can we build a world in which there are no poor among us?” he said. “Well, we’d like to try.”

For his part, Bingham hasn’t given up hope on a CEC comeback.

“We’ve actually been trying to get some laws passed,” he said, on a state and potentially federal level, to make a program like CEC’s viable in the future, “because everyone could see it was good for society.”

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