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A court document is taped to the entrances of Tri-Valley University at 405 Boulder Court in Pleasanton, Calif., on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2011. The university's website describes Tri-Valley University as "a Christian Higher Education Institution aiming to offer rigorous and excellent quality academic programs in the context of Christian faith and world view." (Cindi Christie/Staff)

SAN FRANCISCO -- Assistant U.S. Attorney Wade Rhyne said the case of Tri-Valley University founder and president Susan Su, who is accused of running a scam school that issued student visas to foreigners in exchange for tuition, could be boiled down to one word: greed.

"This case can be summed up in one word. And that word is greed," he said in his opening statements in federal court on Tuesday.

In contrast, Su's defense attorney, Erik Babcock described Su as a woman who was trying to run her Pleasanton school "on her own," but "was operating in good faith."

"It wasn't Stanford or Harvard, and it didn't have a billion dollar endowment," or a large staff, he said of the school, which has closed.

"But there are hundreds maybe thousands of things that are needed to run a school. Was it perfect? No. But was it a good faith effort? Yes."

Su, a Pleasanton resident, pleaded not guilty after being indicted by a federal grand jury in April 2011 on 35 counts related to the former Pleasanton school, including conspiracy to commit visa fraud, wire fraud, money laundering, alien harboring and making false statements.

Rhyne said Su's greed compelled her to use the university, which claimed to award masters- and PhD-level degrees in engineering, business and ministry, as a front.

It allowed her to rake in "$5.5 million through fraud in less than two years," he said. He added that Su used the money she earned from the fraud to buy two commercial properties in Pleasanton, which served as the university's offices, as well as three residences, including a mansion at Ruby Hill Golf Club, and a Mercedes Benz.

The school lacked instructors and appropriate course material, Rhyne said. And it recruited and admitted aliens as students without regard to their academic qualifications and intent to pursue a full course of study, as long as they paid their $2,700 per semester in tuition for a F-1 visa, allowing them to stay in the United States.

He said that in late 2008 Su falsified documents when it petitioned the Department of Homeland Security's Student and Exchange Visitors Program in Washington, D.C., for approval to admit foreign students at the unaccredited school. She claimed that 30 students were attending the school and it had nine instructors. Yet, in fact, the school at the time of Su's arrest in May 2011 had more than 1,000 students and numerous instructors that Su claimed worked for the university, but had no association with it.

Rhyne also said investigators found forged signatures and documents allegedly from two universities, San Francisco State University and University of Centgral Florida, that claimed they would accept the students' credits. They also found falsified immigration documents, transcripts and attendance records of students.

Yet, Babcock said Su "was doing her best."

"She was really trying and she did this all on her own...," he said. "Did she do everything correct? No, she didn't dot every 'i' or every 't'...,'" he said. "But it's not a crime to fail at starting a school."

A former student, Vandana Satija of Hackensack, N.J., testified as a witness Tuesday and said she was threatened with deportation by Su after she tried to get class refunds when she learned the courses did not have instructors or appropriate coursework and tests. Prosecutors said the trial, being heard by Judge Jon Tigar in federal district court, is expected to continue for the next three or four weeks in federal court.

Contact Joyce Tsai at 925-847-2123. Follow her at Twitter.com/JoyceTsaiNews.