gavel.jpgSan Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed a suit Tuesday against an alleged con artist accused of bilking Chinese immigrant students of tuition payments for a culinary school only to exploit them as free labor at events he was catering.

Angelo Mueller Degenhardt, who went by the alias “Chef Angelo Mueller,” is accused of running the fraudulent operation “Academie de Cuisine” in the city’s South of Market neighborhood, according to Herrera’s office.

The lawsuit alleges that Mueller charged students as much as $3,600 in tuition for a three-month culinary training program and an additional three-month paid externship at one of the academy’s culinary venues.

The academy also approached Chinese Newcomers Service Center, a nonprofit in the city’s Chinatown neighborhood, with a proposed partnership in which the center would teach English to the students and the academy would teach cooking, and also lured certified instructors to the school, according to Herrera’s office.

But students began to complain when they began being required to manage academy-sponsored catering events without pay, and that they were demanded to sign retroactive agreements saying they would not receive a certificate of completion of the course without completing an unpaid externship, according to Herrera’s office.

An employee who answered the phone number listed on the academy’s website said today that the academy received a court summons on Tuesday, but declined to comment further on the case.

The city attorney’s office learned of the suit through the efforts of the labor union Unite Here Local 2 and the city’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement, Herrera’s spokesman Jack Song said.

Mueller has previously been convicted in Utah of multiple counts of federal mail and securities fraud, and was sent to federal prison after violating his probation terms. He had been in prison from November 2007 until he was released in February 2010, prosecutors said.

“Fraud is always bad, of course, but defrauding students who aspire to improve their work skills and better provide for their families takes an extra degree of maliciousness,” Herrera said in a statement.

“The students victimized by this phony academy deserve justice, and we intend to fight for everything that’s owed to them,” he said.

The lawsuit, a collaboration between the city attorney’s office and students from the UC Berkeley School of Law, seeks injunctive relief to halt the academy’s operation, civil penalties for each violation, and full payment of withheld wages to the students who worked the catering events.

Dan McMenamin, Bay City News

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