Immigrants Say They Paid Thousands For Cosmetology Licenses
by Jennifer Kraus
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Tennessee regulators are taking steps to revoke the licenses of dozens of people who have been working in the cosmetology field, doing nails, cutting hair and giving facials.
That's because, officials say, they all fraudulently obtained their licenses.
Yet, the state, after hearing from them, also believes these folks are victims of someone who took advantage of them.
An attorney for the state asked Thanh Nguyen through a translator, "How much did you pay him?"
Her response: "$4,000."
It was a stunning admission as Nguyen testified through a translator that she had paid someone $4,000 to help her get a manicurist's license in Tennessee.
"And then you got a license?" she was asked.
State records show when Nguyen's license application was sent in to the state Cosmetology Board, it stated she had 1,600 hours of cosmetology training from California, which qualified her to get a license in Tennessee.
But the state now says Nguyen and three dozen other Vietnamese who don't speak much English were granted cosmetology and manicurist licenses here based on falsified applications. They claimed that they had licenses or significant training in other states, when they didn't.
Kenny Nguyen told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that his mother had worked in a factory and had no nail experience when she turned to a man who said he could get her a license and would take care of everything.
We asked Kenny Nguyen, "Who filled out (your mother's) application?"
"He did," Nguyen answered, referring to the man his mother says she paid $4,000.
"Did she look at (the application) or anything?" we asked.
"He (the man) just told her where to sign," Nguyen said.
The others at the state hearing -- held to consider whether 37 licensees should lose their Cosmetology license -- then came forward saying they too had paid anything from $2,000 to more than $6,000 to the same man who promised them a state license in return.
Tam Nguyen, another licensee explained through a translator that the same man had filled our her application. She insisted that she had told him she wanted to take the licensure test in Tennessee.
But, she continued, "He just say she didn't need to worry about it."
"She didn't need to take the test?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked to confirm what she was saying.
Her answer, "Yes."
NewsChannel 5 found the man these people say they paid to get them their license.
Lee Phan is the owner of Lee's Nails just off Bandywood Drive in the heart of Green Hills.
"And, you fill out their applications?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Phan.
He replied, "Uh, yeah. No. I didn't fill it out. They do it sometimes."
"And sometimes you do?" we asked.
"Yeah. Yeah." he responded.
"We've got people telling us you were charging them $3,000 to $5,000?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted.
"No, no, not that much," he maintained.
But, after we showed him the list of people who'd been busted by the state for fraudulent licenses, Phan's story suddenly changed.
"I didn't receive any money from them. I didn't receive any money from them," he insisted.
But another licensee, Thuy Nguyen, showed Phan's business card. On the backside, she told NewsChannel 5 Investigates through a friend who translated, was a handwritten receipt from Lee Phan for $2,000.
"That is a receipt for what?" we asked.
"To pay him (Phan) to get her license," Nguyen's friend translated.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Mark Green, assistant general counsel for the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance, "All of these people told you they paid the same man?"
"Yes, yes," he answered.
Green said everyone who came forward told a similar story and said they thought Phan was helping them.
"It just makes you feel sorry for these folks and that they were taken advantage of by an individual," Green continued.
As Thuy Nguyen fought back tears, she described how Phan not only took her money, but also her dream of being of a manicurist.
"She wants him to pay for what he did to so many people," Nguyen's translator explained.
So what happens to Lee Phan?
The Cosmetology Board has a lot of questions for him.
But they don't have the authority to pursue criminal charges. They can refer the case to the district attorney or the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, which we are told is likely.
Officials say the state discovered that those 38 licenses had apparently been falsified after the state fired a woman last year who worked for the Cosmetology Board. She had allegedly been found to be selling drugs on the job.
According to state records, her supervisors had some suspicions about what she was doing with records and ordered an internal review of all of the license applications she'd worked on. That review revealed these discrepancies.
The Tennessee Cosmetology Board is interested in hearing from anyone who thinks they might have been taken advantage of by someone in the license application process. (Telephone: 615-741-2515. Toll-free: 800-480-9285. Email: Cosmetology.Board@TN.Gov.)