Former Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services employee admits stealing money from federal aid programs
GREAT FALLS — A Cascade woman suspected of fraudulently obtaining federal student financial aid by using the names of other individuals to enroll at the Great Falls College and then using those identities to receive financial aid appeared on April 12 on conspiracy, fraud and identity theft crimes, U.S. Attorney Leif M. Johnson said.
Ricci Lea Castellanos, 34, also of Redding, California, pleaded not guilty during an arraignment to a 14-count indictment charging her with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud, aggravated identity theft and student financial aid fraud. If convicted of the most serious crime, Castellanos faces a maximum of 20 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised release on the conspiracy and wire fraud crimes and two years in prison in addition to punishment for underlying felony, a $250,000 fine and one year of supervised release on the aggravated identity theft crime.
U.S. Magistrate Judge John T. Johnston presided. Castellanos was released pending further proceedings.
The indictment alleges that between January 2016 and December 2019, Castellanos enrolled unwitting family members and others in online classes at the Great Falls College, Montana State University. When doing so, Castellanos and others applied for and received Federal Student Aid totaling approximately $126,219, none of which was allowed. The indictment further alleges that Castellanos and others fraudulently used and submitted multiple American Indian Tuition Waivers. To support such applications, Castellanos and others created and used false tribal enrollment forms from Native American Tribes, all of which were designed to result in larger student living expense refunds, and which were then diverted by Castellanos and others.
An indictment is merely an accusation, and the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ryan G. Weldon is prosecuting the case, which was investigated by the Department of Education Office of Inspector General.
PACER case reference. 22-17.
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Clair Johnson Howard
Public Affairs Officer