School Owner Pleads Guilty to Bribing Public Official at VA Program for Disabled Military Veterans
WASHINGTON – The owner of Eelon Training Academy (“Eelon”), a privately owned, non-accredited school purporting to specialize in digital media courses, pleaded guilty today to bribing a public official at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in exchange for the public official’s facilitation of payments to Eelon that were supposed to be dedicated to providing vocational training for military veterans with service-connected disabilities. Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and U.S. Attorney Jessie K. Liu for the District of Columbia made the announcement.
Michelle Stevens, 57, of Waldorf, Maryland, pleaded guilty to one count of bribing a public official. The plea was entered before U.S. District Judge John D. Bates of the District of Columbia. In April 2018, two other individuals, Albert Poawui and Sombo Kanneh, pleaded guilty in related cases to bribery and conspiracy to commit bribery, respectively.
The Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) program is a VA program that 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.
According to admissions made in connection with Stevens’ plea, she created Eelon Training Academy after learning about the VR&E program from a VR&E program counselor. In or about September 2016, the VR&E program counselor facilitated the first tuition payment from the VA to Eelon. Shortly after receiving this payment, the VR&E program counselor told Stevens that she should give him seven percent of the monies paid by the VA to Eelon.
Stevens admitted to later making two cash payments of $1,500 to the VR&E program counselor in furtherance of her scheme to bribe the VR&E program counselor in exchange for the VR&E program counselor sending veterans under his supervision to Eelon and facilitating the VA’s payments to Stevens. In total, Stevens received approximately $83,000 from the VA for education that she purported to provide to veteran students. Stevens submitted invoices to the VA amounting to no less than $300,000 for the tuition and equipment of seven students, but was not paid the balance of the invoice amount due to the VA’s ongoing investigation into Eelon following complaints by students about the poor quality of education.
In an effort to procure the outstanding payments from the VA, Stevens made numerous fraudulent misrepresentations to the VA, and maintained fraudulent student files in the event of an audit by the VA. For example, Stevens emailed to the VA an “attendance” sheet for eight students. The attendance sheet was created by Stevens and included handwritten check marks purporting to represent the dates that the students attended class. In fact, as Stevens well knew, the students had not attended class on many of those dates nor was class even held on many of those dates.
Stevens’ plea is the third guilty plea in an ongoing investigation by the FBI’s Washington Field Office and the VA Office of Inspector General. Assistant U.S. Attorney Sonali D. Patel of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia and Trial Attorney Simon J. Cataldo of the Criminal Division’s Public Integrity Section are prosecuting the case. Assistant U.S. Attorney Adrienne Dedjinou and Paralegal Specialist Joshua Fein also assisted in the prosecution of this case.