Six Former Employees of Chicago Post-Secondary School Indicted for Allegedly Swindling Federal Financial Aid Program out of Millions
CHICAGO — Six former employees of a non-profit Chicago post-secondary education institute schemed to enroll fake students in classes as part of a conspiracy to swindle federal financial aid programs out of millions of dollars, according to an indictment returned in federal court in Chicago.
The six defendants were employed at the Chicago campus of the Center for Employment Training, a California-based institution of post-secondary, non-degree, vocational and technical education with campuses throughout the country. From 2005 to 2013, the defendants applied for and obtained federal grants and loans for students who were ineligible to receive the funds, the indictment states. One of the purported students was marked present at CET classes even though the student was deceased at the time, the indictment states.
The scheme caused the U.S. Department of Education to disburse to CET millions of dollars in fraudulent financial aid, the indictment states.
The indictment was returned Thursday. It charges the defendants with one count of conspiracy to fraudulently obtain federal financial assistance, one count of fraudulently obtaining federal financial assistance, and three counts of wire fraud. The defendants are MARIE PICKETT, 59, of Chicago; JANIE BLAKENEY, 63, of Chicago; DEBORAH WILLIAMS, 58, of Chicago; JENNY MORALES, 36, of Cicero; HEATHER SMITH, 43, of Cicero; and TAMAURA BALARK, 45, of Chicago. Arraignments in federal court in Chicago have not yet been scheduled.
The indictment was announced by John R. Lausch, Jr., United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois; Jeffrey S. Sallet, Special Agent-in-Charge of the Chicago office of the FBI; and Thomas D. Utz, Jr., Special Agent-in-Charge of the U.S. Department of Education Office of Inspector General’s Midwestern Regional Office. The government is represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney John Mitchell.
According to the charges, Pickett served as the Director of CET’s Chicago campus; Blakeney was the Admissions Advisor; Williams and Morales were Financial Aid Officers; and Smith and Balark were instructors in the Medical Assistance Program. As part of the conspiracy, some of the defendants created and furnished to the Department of Education phony Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) applications on behalf of purported students who were not eligible to receive financial aid because they had not graduated from high school or received an equivalency certificate, the charges state. For one purported student, the conspirators created a fictitious diploma that fraudulently alleged the student had graduated from a Chicago public high school, the indictment states. The fictitious diploma was then placed in the student’s CET file in an effort to meet the Department of Education’s requirements for financial aid, according to the indictment.
The public is reminded that an indictment is not evidence of guilt. The defendants are presumed innocent and entitled to a fair trial at which the government has the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Each count of wire fraud is punishable by up to 20 years in prison, while the financial assistance fraud counts carry a maximum sentence of five years. If convicted, the Court must impose a reasonable sentence under federal statutes and the advisory U.S. Sentencing Guidelines.