Feds: Columbus theology school staffers recruited fake students to steal millions

Credit: File photo

Credit: File photo

Several former employees, including 2 metro Atlanta women, plead guilty to fraud charges

Five people, including two women from the metro Atlanta area, pleaded guilty in a multimillion dollar fraud case that involved recruiting fake students to a Columbus-area theology school to steal financial aid money, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Thursday.

According to a federal indictment, a group of five administrators at the Columbus branch of the Apex School of Theology and a local tax preparer were accused of recruiting fake students, falsifying their application packets, applying for financial aid on their behalf and submitting fake schoolwork to keep up qualifications for that aid.

The group was accused of running the scheme for eight years, paying off the fake students and hiding it from the main Apex school, which was based in North Carolina. Court documents indicate the co-conspirators stole between $9.5 million and $25 million in financial aid funds over the course of their scheme.

Sandra Anderson, 63, of Palmetto, and Kristina Parker, 35, of Stone Mountain, were among the five defendants who pleaded guilty, the DOJ said. Anderson was the director of Apex’s Columbus Center and Parker was an administrative assistant there, the indictment said.

Two other defendants who pleaded guilty, married couple Yolanda and Leo Thomas, worked as instructors at the school, the indictment said. Another defendant, Dorothy Webb of Las Vegas, Nevada, died before entering a plea. She was also an instructor at the school.

The final defendant, Erica Montgomery, of Fort Mitchell, Alabama, pleaded guilty to a superseding indictment, court records show. Montgomery was the primary defendant named in the case.

In pleading guilty, the defendants admitted to participating in the scheme to enroll fake students between 2010 and 2018, which was done under Anderson’s direction. The group created “an elaborate sham university” under the Apex Theology School umbrella, the DOJ said.

Montgomery, who ran a tax preparation business called Dylon Tax Service, served as the recruiter for fake students. She would promise people “free money” if they registered as students, court documents said, and assured them they would not have to complete any schoolwork or attend classes.

Montgomery would then work with Parker and Anderson, the director, to get the fake students admitted with application packets they filled out themselves. The applications included writing “spiritual autobiographies” for each fake student. They used the recruits’ real information, including their names, birth dates and social security numbers.

Once the students were admitted, the defendants filled out applications for Federal Student Aid, successfully winning Pell Grants and obtaining federal student loans. In some cases, they submitted fake GEDs to satisfy the requirement for a high school diploma.

The defendants then created profiles for each of the fake students through the main Apex school and their online administrative and teaching software, Populi. The group would log onto Populi as the fake students to submit coursework and tests so they would appear to be in good academic standing, keeping them eligible for financial aid.

The co-conspirators also manipulated students’ grades to ensure they would continue to receive federal funds. Parker emailed Leo Thomas and other instructors warning them not to fail students or they would not be paid, the indictment said.

After the financial aid was awarded, the funds were disbursed to the school accounts of each student. If the amount of financial aid was greater than tuition and certain other charges, the school was required by federal law to send a refund check to the student, which was meant to be used for educational purposes. Anderson arranged with the main Apex school to have the Columbus students’ refund checks sent to her branch, rather than directly to the students.

Some fake students still received their refund checks directly, and the co-conspirators required them to cash the checks and pay the group a portion of the funds. In other cases, they stole the entire refund checks outright.

Anderson, Parker and Yolanda Thomas each pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, five counts of wire fraud and four counts of financial aid fraud. Montgomery and Leo Thomas each pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

The defendants face a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison on each of the conspiracy and wire fraud charges, as well as five years for each count of financial aid fraud.

There is no parole in the federal prison system. The group is scheduled to be sentenced at a Dec. 15 hearing.