Dillon Zerwas of New Prague was two weeks into his first criminal-justice class at the Minnesota School of Business when a substitute teacher broke the news. The college, he told him, wasn't certified to train police officers in Minnesota.

"I was dumbstruck," said Zerwas, 19. When he signed up, he said, he was led to believe just the opposite.

On Tuesday, Zerwas was one of three former students standing beside Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson as she announced a consumer-fraud lawsuit against the for-profit college and its sister school, Globe University, both based in Woodbury.

The suit, filed Tuesday, accuses the two schools of misleading criminal-justice students about their job prospects after graduation and deceiving them about the ability to transfer credits to other colleges or universities.

Swanson accused the schools of using high-pressure sales tactics to lure students such as Zerwas, who want to become police or probation officers, into degree programs costing $35,000 to $70,000 that are not certified or accepted for jobs in Minnesota.

"I felt cheated," said Zerwas, who has since transferred to another college.

Said Swanson: "It isn't right for students whose goal is to protect and defend the public as police officers to be sold a degree that doesn't even allow them to become a police officer in Minnesota."

School officials issued a statement saying that the allegations "could not be further from the truth." The suit, it said, "only serves to injure the interests of our students and tens of thousands of graduates who are gainfully employed in the communities we have served for more than 130 years."

School: A.G. 'unfairly critical'

The statement noted that the schools have been cooperating with the attorney general's office since it began its investigation last year.

"The attorney general was unusually and unfairly critical of our criminal-justice program," it said, adding that its admissions staff members inform students before they enroll that the program "does not fulfill" the requirements to become a police officer in Minnesota.

"It disappoints us that even one student has something unfavorable to say about our colleges," the statement said, noting that the schools have their own internal "dispute resolution process" to address complaints. "To the best of our knowledge," it said, none of the students who complained to the attorney general had used that process.

The schools have 12 campuses in Minnesota, along with an online division in Richfield.

Swanson said the schools' recruiting tactics were "reminiscent of sales boiler rooms," where the sales staff is trained never to take no for an answer. She cited examples from the training manual for "admission representatives" at the two schools: "If he trusts you and you tell him in a convincing way that this is the best career option for him, you will have a sale," it said. "When you ask the question at the final close, remain silent. The next one who speaks loses."

At one point, Swanson compared the tactics to those used in the film "The Wolf of Wall Street," and played a video clip of actor Leonardo DiCaprio using almost identical language to teach his sales team how to sell penny stocks. Make the pitch, he says, and "remain silent. The next one who speaks loses."

Schools sued four times

The suit, filed in Hennepin County District Court, seeks to stop the schools "from engaging in deceptive practices, or making false or misleading statements," as well as civil penalties and restitution for students' losses.

The suit also alleges that:

• The schools steered students who wanted to become probation officers into two-year degree programs, even though most such jobs in Minnesota require four-year degrees.

• Some students were told that their credits would transfer to other institutions, but they learned it wasn't true when they tried to transfer.

Since 1986, the schools have been sued four times for allegedly misrepresenting the job prospects of students, Swanson said.

Last August, a jury ordered Globe University to pay $395,000 to a former dean, Heidi Weber, who said she was fired in 2011 for complaining about unethical practices, such as falsifying job-placement numbers.

Swanson invited anyone with complaints against the schools to call her office at 651-296-3353 or 1-800-657-3787.

maura.lerner@startribune.com 612-673-7384 paul.walsh@startribune.com 612-673-4482