A Veterans Affairs Department official steered disabled veterans to questionable schools in exchange for bribes from school officials, according to the Justice Department.
James King, the VA official in question, on Tuesday pleaded guilty to accepting about $160,000 in bribes. In return, law enforcement officials say, he directed participants in VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program to Atius Technology Institute and Eelon Training Academy, generating more than $2 million in VA revenue for the schools.
Both schools were the subject of repeated complaints from veterans, who said they provided a poor-quality education, and both misled the VA about their costs and program details.
Yet King pushed disabled vets in the program to attend the schools, despite these red flags and regardless of the vets' individual interests or educational needs.
VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program provides education and career help to disabled veterans, including counselors to advise them and help paying for the education and training they need to land a good job in their chosen field.
King’s co-conspirators in the bribery ring were Albert Poawui, Atius’ owner; Sombo Kanneh, one of Poawui’s employees at Atius; and Michelle Stevens, who owned Eelon. Atius claimed to specialize in information-technology courses, while Eelon claimed to provide digital-media training.
Poawui and Kanneh admitted in their pleas that they had struck a deal with King in which Poawui would give King 7 percent of all payments from the VA to Atius. King continued to help place veterans in Atius programs despite “repeated complaints about the poor quality of education” there, according to the DoJ news release.
As part of this arrangement, Poawui and Stevens made numerous false claims to the VA about what was really going on at Atius and Eelon.
Powaui lied to the VA about the number of hours per week veterans were able to attend Atius classes, saying they were enrolled in up to 32 hours a week of class time, even though Atius only offered a maximum of six weekly class hours.
Stevens made a fake attendance sheet for eight students showing they were in Eelon classes that they did not attend on specific days, even including dates on which no classes were held.
The VA was clearly suspicious of both schools, as it audited Atius and had “an ongoing investigation into Eelon following complaints by students about the poor quality of education,” according to the DoJ release.
The VA’s Office of the Inspector General partnered with the FBI’s Washington Field Office for the investigation.
The four participants in this scheme cost the VA $2,217,259.44 between August 2015 and December 2017, the DoJ reported. Poawui paid King more than $155,000 in that time period, with Stevens chipping in another $3,000.
King pleaded guilty to charges of bribery, wire fraud and falsification of documents. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Friday, Feb. 15.
Poawui was sentenced to 70 months in prison with three years of supervised release and was also ordered to pay the VA back $1.5 million. Kanneh was sentenced to 20 months in prison with three years of supervised release and was ordered to forfeit the $1.5 million she helped embezzle, plus an extra $113,227.30 in restitution.
Stevens was sentenced to 30 months in prison with three years of supervised release and ordered to forfeit $83,000 and pay the VA $83,000.
Nicole Navas, a DoJ spokeswoman, said her department does “not have any additional statements beyond our pleadings and previous press announcements on this case.”