Teacher Certification Scam Investigation Comes To A Close; Nets Thirteenth Guilty Plea And Fortieth Agreement To Pay Restitution And Cease Teaching
Memphis, TN – United States Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, Edward L. Stanton III, announced that Janett Dixon, 48, of Northport, Alabama; Corey Holmes, 37, of Metcalfe, Mississippi; Nia Kimble-Harris, 39, of Memphis, Tennessee; and Charles Ray Lee, 32, of Magee, Mississippi; have entered diversion agreements in the two-decade teacher certification testing scam led by ringleader Clarence Mumford, Sr., 61, of Memphis, who pled guilty in the scheme last year.
U.S. Attorney Stanton also announced the June guilty plea and sentencing of former Hillcrest High School and Byhalia High School boys basketball coach James O. Sales, 40, of Memphis.
Sales’s guilty plea is the thirteenth in a case opened by the United States Attorney’s Office in August 2011, and the four diversion agreements – which include agreements to cease teaching and to pay restitution where teaching jobs were obtained – bring the total number of diversion agreements to 40.
“Clarence Mumford and those he used in this tragic scam cheated the honest and dedicated tea
chers in our communities, and, tragically, the parents and children who deserve qualified teachers in their classrooms. Crimes such as these undermine our educational institutions and strike at the fabric of our society,” stated U.S. Attorney Stanton. “We are proud to have partnered with the U.S. Secret Service, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, and the Shelby County District Attorney General’s Office to expose this scheme and send the message that if you are defrauding our communities we will work together and we will bring you to justice.”
The Teacher Certification Testing Scam
Mumford, Sr., the ringleader who pled guilty last year, was a teacher, guidance counselor, and assistant principal at schools in Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee.
The scam began in the mid-1980s, when Mumford began altering score reports for teachers with failing certification test scores. Teachers used the altered score reports to obtain licenses and jobs. Mumford changed the scam in the 1990s, when Educational Testing Service, which manages the certification tests, began sending scores directly to state boards of education. Mumford hired John Bowen, who was a substitute teacher at Humes Junior High School when Mumford was the assistant principal, to take examinations on behalf of failing teachers. At the time, Mumford charged approximately $600 per exam, paying $200 to Bowen.
Over time, demand for Mumford’s services grew as his name was passed by word of mouth among teachers and coaches in the Memphis City and Shelby County Schools and into Mississippi and Arkansas. Mumford’s market focused on teachers who were teaching on temporary licenses but were unable to pass the certification tests. These teachers, who had obtained college degrees but could not pass the exams, were willing to pay substantial sums to avoid losing their teaching – and in many cases, coaching – jobs.
Mumford identified targets of his services in various ways, such as searching the Tennessee Department of Education website for teachers whose temporary licenses were expiring, asking people who used his services whether they knew anyone else who needed passing scores, and attending meetings where teachers discussed their licensing issues. Once he identified potential customers, he contacted them, sometimes initially using the pretense that he would tutor them before soliciting them to pay stand-ins to take their exams. Some of the customers knew exactly what they were getting into from the outset, while others had simply heard generally that Mumford could help them get a passing score.
By 2010, Mumford was charging teachers approximately $2,500 to $3,000 and paying the stand-ins up to $600 to $800 per exam. In addition to Bowen, he had hired Steve Holmes, Felippia Kellogg, Nia Kimble-Harris, Devin Rutherford, Carlos Shaw, Jeryl Shaw, Shantell Shaw and his son, Clarence Mumford, Jr., to take examinations.
Proctors Catch Stand-ins Taking Exams
Unbeknownst to Mumford at the time, the scheme began to unravel on June 13, 2009 when proctors for examinations given at Arkansas State University-Jonesboro caught several of Mumford’s stand-ins taking tests.
During the first session of tests on that date, Shantell Shaw, who was wearing a pink New York Yankees baseball cap, tested in the name of Marshay Thornton, then a Memphis City Schools teacher. The proctor for that examination went to visit another proctor during the second session of tests. She noticed the name Marshay Thornton on the second proctor’s examinee list but did not see Shantell Shaw in her pink ball cap. The first proctor asked the second proctor where Marshay Thornton was, and the second proctor identified a man who had identified himself as Marshay Thornton. This man turned out to be John Bowen.
Upon further investigation, the proctors determined that John Bowen had taken a test that morning in the name of Ellix Brooks (who also goes by the name Ellix Wilson). They found that Carlos Shaw was taking a test in the second session in the name of Ellix Brooks. They also found that Carlos Shaw had taken a test in the first session in the name of James Sales. Investigators later determined that Nia Kimble-Harris was also taking an examination at Arkansas State that day.
Shantell Shaw, Carlos Shaw and Nia Kimble-Harris managed to get away before university police officers arrived. The officers gave Bowen a persona non grata notice and criminal trespass warning, and Bowen was forced to call Mumford to come to Jonesboro to pick him up.
The incident was reported to Educational Testing Services, which looked into the tests and cancelled the relevant scores. Eventually, in 2010, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation was notified and asked to investigate.
Meanwhile, Mumford had suspended the scheme for several months after the Arkansas State incident. By early 2010, though, he resumed the scheme, apparently believing the incident had escaped the attention of law enforcement.
Law Enforcement Investigation
After receiving the request to investigate, the TBI interviewed participants in the Jonesboro testing and, in the fall of 2010, obtained a search warrant for Mumford’s home. At the home, investigators found a variety of sources of information that identified additional participants in the scheme, including identification documents used to create fake IDs and correspondence from teachers involved in the scheme. They also found several thousand dollars in cash.
After investigators learned that participants in several states were involved, the case was presented to the United States Attorney’s Office, which began a federal investigation. The TBI remained the lead investigative agency, and the United States Secret Service joined the investigation.
State and federal investigators subpoenaed bank and phone records and conducted hundreds of interviews to attempt to unravel the entire scheme, traveling across western Tennessee and down through Mississippi to the delta. They found that Mumford’s name had been passed along by word of mouth to dozens of teachers in Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama.
Mumford’s Manipulation of Participants
Investigators learned that Mumford had manipulated people to bring them into the scheme. For example, Shantell Shaw informed investigators that Mumford was her mentor when she was a new teacher. Mumford told Ms. Shaw that he knew a woman who had failed to pass an examination numerous times and was in danger of losing her job. He asked Ms. Shaw to take the examination for the woman, and Ms. Shaw refused several times. Finally, after he persuaded Ms. Shaw to meet the woman, Ms. Shaw relented and took the exam. He used a similar approach with Felippia Turner-Kellogg, telling her of teachers who would lose their jobs if she did not help out.
Mumford also persuaded some teachers to use his services by initially luring them with an agreement to tutor them. After meeting with them, he would tell them that tutoring would not work out but that he could get the exams passed for a fee. Frances Jones is one example. After meeting with Ms. Jones for a short while for purported tutoring services, Mumford told her that she should just pay him to have the test taken for her. He told her that tutoring would not work out. She needed the score to keep her job. It did not work out for Ms. Jones. She paid Mumford $3,000, but the stand-in left the testing facility because the stand-in feared the proctor was suspicious of the fake ID Mumford had provided. Mumford then demanded an additional $3,000 for a second exam even though his stand-in had not taken the first. Desperate, Ms. Jones paid the additional $3,000. But this time the scores were cancelled after ETS detected a large score increase compared to Ms. Jones’s previous tests and identified handwriting discrepancies. Mumford did not refund any of Ms. Jones’s money.
Dozens of Teachers and Examinations Identified – Additional Evidence Destroyed
Investigators identified approximately 100 examinations taken on behalf of at least 50 individuals. However, although many of the examinations and participants were identified based on materials found during the search warrant at Mumford’s house in the fall of 2010, they also learned that after the Jonesboro incident in 2009, Mumford had taken boxes of testing documentation and evidence to a in Mississippi farm and burned the items. Had those items not been destroyed, investigators may well have been able to identify many more participants and examinations.
Of those involved in the scheme, Mumford enabled many teachers who had failed examinations numerous times, and enabled them to teach in already struggling districts. Carlo McClelland failed the Reading and Writing examinations eleven times before Mumford had the tests passed for him. Marshay Thornton had failed biology eight times. Jacqueline Hill, Willie Knox and Taponsa Wells had each failed examinations seven times before Mumford had the tests passed for them.
In 2012, the Memphis City Schools – the central location of the scheme – had the highest percentage of all school districts in Tennessee of students below basic proficiency levels in Reading and Science. Nine Mississippi districts that had hired teachers enabled by Mumford were characterized as “Low Performing.” At least 22 school districts in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama – and thousands of students in those districts – were victimized by the scheme.
Notably, as Mumford’s name passed by word of mouth through the coaching community, a number of former athletes and coaches became involved in the scheme. Basketball coaches who pled guilty or were diverted in the scheme included Corey Alexander, Samuel Campbell, Yanesha Coleman, Jerome Martin, Rondavius Milam, Shelvie Rose, James Sales, Shunnica Scott, Roosevelt Taylor and Jermaine Johnson, who coached Melrose High School to a state championship in 2010. Football coaches included Ellis Brooks, Keiver Campbell, Lavante Epson, Willie Knox, Jadice Moore, Corey Holmes, Carlo McClelland, Cedrick Wilson and Devin Rutherford, who coached White Station High School to a state championship in 2009.
Several of the coaches had also been professional athletes. Cedrick Wilson starred at the University of Tennessee before later playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers and winning a Super Bowl ring. Corey Holmes played for several years in the Canadian Football League, winning the league’s Most Outstanding Special Teams Player in 2005. He later became the mayor of Metcalfe, Mississippi. Lavante Epson played for several years in the Arena Football League, and Keiver Campbell played minor league baseball. Dante Dowers, who acted as a middleman in the scam, was on the Baltimore Ravens practice squad in 1996.
Results of Investigation
To this point, 13 participants have been convicted of felonies, 10 of them serving time in prison. An additional 40 have reached diversion agreements that will result in losses of teaching licenses and an agreement not to even attempt to teach for at least five years. The agreements require those who got teaching jobs using Mumford’s services to pay restitution to the school districts that employed them.
Clarence Mumford – the ringleader – is currently serving a seven-year sentence in federal prison.
This investigation is being conducted by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the United States Secret Service. Assistant U.S. Attorney John Fabian and Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Kirby May represent the government.