Department of Veterans Affairs Official Pleads Guilty to Bribery, Fraud, and Obstruction in $2 Million Scheme Involving Program for Disabled Military Veterans
A former U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) official pleaded guilty to demanding and receiving bribes from three for-profit schools in exchange for enrolling disabled military veterans in those schools and facilitating over $2 million in payments from the VA using the veterans’ federal benefits.
Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, U.S. Attorney Jessie K. Liu for the District of Columbia, Special Agent in Charge Matthew J. DeSarno of the FBI’s Washington Field Office’s Criminal Division and Special Agent in Charge Kim Lampkins of the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG), Mid-Atlantic Field Office made the announcement.
James King, 63, of Baltimore, Maryland, pleaded guilty to an Information alleging one count of honest services and money/property wire fraud, one count of bribery, and one count of falsifying records to obstruct an administrative investigation. The plea was entered before U.S. District Judge John D. Bates of the District of Columbia, who set sentencing for Jan. 15, 2019. King is the fourth individual to plead guilty as part of this investigation. In April, Albert Poawui and Sombo Kanneh pleaded guilty to bribing and conspiring to bribe King, respectively. In July, Michelle Stevens pleaded guilty to bribing King.
“For years, James King and his criminal associates defrauded an important VA program that provides education services to military veterans who served our country,” said Assistant Attorney General Benczkowski. “The Justice Department is committed to prosecuting those who seek to illegally enrich themselves at the expense of programs intended to help our brave servicemembers.”
“James King took advantage of his position with the VA by participating in a scam that took money from programs meant to help our disabled military veterans find jobs and enhance their education,” said U.S. Attorney Liu. “This investigation shows that we will do everything we can to ensure that taxpayer money intended for our veterans is put to its proper use, not siphoned off by the people and organizations who are entrusted with helping them.”
“King tried to use his position to enrich himself at the expense of veterans who have honorably served our country,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge DeSarno. “This guilty plea makes it perfectly clear that such activity by anyone affiliated with the U.S. government will not be tolerated. The FBI will work closely with our partners to continue to aggressively investigate allegations of corruption.”
“King’s plea is a win for VA and our veterans,” said Kim Lampkins, Special Agent in Charge of the VA-OIG Mid-Atlantic Field Office. “It sends a clear message that VA OIG is dedicated to prosecuting those that take advantage of VA programs that are intended to help our veterans and their families.”
According to King’s admissions made in connection with his plea, the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) provides disabled U.S. military veterans with education and employment-related services. VR&E program counselors advise veterans under their supervision which schools to attend and facilitate payments to those schools for veterans’ tuition and necessary supplies.
From 2015 through 2017, King, using his position as a VR&E program counselor, demanded and received cash bribes from the owners of Atius Technology Institute (Atius), Eelon Training Academy (Eelon), and School A, a school purporting to specialize in physical security classes. King facilitated over $2 million in payments to Atius, over $83,000 to Eelon, and over $340,000 to School A, all in furtherance of King’s separate agreements with the respective school owners to commit bribery and defraud the VA. King agreed with Poawui and Stevens that they would each pay him, in cash, seven percent of the money they received from the VA in exchange for King steering veterans to their schools and facilitating VA payments. King similarly accepted cash payments from the owner of School A, who is identified as Person A in the Information, in exchange for the same official acts.
In order to maximize the profits from their fraud, all three school owners sent King and other VA officials false information about the education being provided to veterans, and King facilitated payments to all three schools knowing this information was false. King also admitted to repeatedly lying to veterans under his supervision in order to convince them to attend Atius, Eelon, or School A. For example, King falsely instructed one veteran that, unless he attended School A, his VR&E program benefits would “lapse.” King insisted that this veteran enroll in School A despite the veteran’s protests that he could not engage in physical security work due to a physical disability, and despite the fact that the veteran had enrolled in the VR&E program to pursue his dream of becoming a baker.
In early 2017, the VA initiated a fact-finding inquiry into Atius based on complaints by students as to the quality of education at the school. In August 2017, after King became aware of the inquiry, he created a falsified site visit report and instructed Poawui to send it to another VA official, all in an effort to obstruct the VA’s inquiry into Atius. In January 2018, after Poawui had begun to cooperate with the government in its investigation, King attempted to convince Poawui to lie to the grand jury about the purpose of the bribe payments.
King’s plea is the result of an ongoing investigation by the FBI’s Washington Field Office and the VA Office of Inspector General. Trial Attorney Simon J. Cataldo of the Criminal Division’s Public Integrity Section, former Assistant U.S. Attorney and current Fraud Section Trial Attorney Sonali D. Patel, and Assistant U.S. Attorney David Misler of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia are prosecuting the case. Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Adrienne Dedjinou and Paralegal Josh Fein of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia also assisted with the investigation.