A former U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) official was sentenced last week for demanding and receiving bribes from three for-profit schools in exchange for enrolling disabled military veterans in those schools and facilitating over $2 million in payments from the VA using the veterans’ federal benefits.
Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, U.S. Attorney Jessie K. Liu for the District of Columbia, Special Agent in Charge Matthew J. DeSarno of the FBI’s Washington Field Office’s Criminal Division and Special Agent in Charge Kim Lampkins of the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG), Mid-Atlantic Field Office made the announcement.
James King, 63, of Baltimore, Maryland, previously pleaded guilty to an Information alleging one count of honest services and money/property wire fraud, one count of bribery of a public official, and one count of falsifying records to obstruct an investigation. King was sentenced by U.S. District Judge John D. Bates of the District of Columbia to serve 132 months in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release, and to pay $155,000 in restitution to the VA. Earlier this week, Judge Bates sentenced three school owners and employees who admitted to bribing King. Albert Poawui, the owner of Atius Technology Institute, was sentenced to serve 70 months in prison and ordered to pay $1.5 million in restitution. Sombo Kanneh, Poawui’s employee, was sentenced to serve 20 months in prison and ordered to pay $113,000 in restitution. Michelle Stevens, the owner of Eelon Training Academy, was sentenced to serve 30 months in prison and ordered to pay $83,000 in restitution.
“James King and his associates exploited an important VA program that provides valuable services to our disabled military veterans,” said Assistant Attorney General Benczkowski. “This prosecution once again demonstrates the Justice Department’s commitment to hold accountable those who seek to defraud government programs for their own personal enrichment.”
“James King blatantly betrayed his responsibility with the VA to provide job and educational counseling to disabled military veterans who turned to him for help,” said U.S. Attorney Liu. “Instead of helping our veterans, he lined his own pockets by taking bribes to send them to three sham schools that brought them only pain and frustration. Today’s sentencing holds him accountable for this breach of trust and this waste of taxpayer money.”
“King tried to use his position to enrich himself at the expense of veterans who have honorably served our country,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge DeSarno. “Today’s sentencing makes it clear that such activity by anyone affiliated with the U.S. government will not be tolerated. The FBI will work closely with our partners to continue to aggressively investigate allegations of corruption.”
“We are pleased to see Mr. King, a person who abused his position of trust and the veterans he was supposed to serve, sentenced today,” said VA OIG Special Agent in Charge Lampkins. “This sentence sends a clear message that VA OIG is dedicated to prosecuting those that take advantage of VA programs that are intended to help our veterans and their families.”
According to King’s admissions made in connection with his plea, the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) provides disabled U.S. military veterans with education and employment-related services. VR&E program counselors advise veterans under their supervision which schools to attend and facilitate payments to those schools for veterans’ tuition and necessary supplies.
From 2015 through 2017, King, using his position as a VR&E program counselor, demanded and received cash bribes from the owners of Atius Technology Institute (Atius), Eelon Training Academy (Eelon), and School A, a school purporting to specialize in physical security classes. King facilitated over $2 million in payments to Atius, over $83,000 to Eelon, and over $340,000 to School A, all in furtherance of King’s separate agreements with the respective school owners to commit bribery and defraud the VA. King agreed with Poawui and Stevens that they would each pay him, in cash, seven percent of the money they received from the VA in exchange for King steering veterans to their schools and facilitating VA payments. King similarly accepted cash payments from the owner of School A, who is identified as Person A in the Information, in exchange for the same official acts.
In order to maximize the profits from their fraud, all three school owners sent King and other VA officials false information about the education being provided to veterans, and King facilitated payments to all three schools knowing this information was false. King also admitted to repeatedly lying to veterans under his supervision in order to convince them to attend Atius, Eelon, or School A. For example, King falsely instructed one veteran that, unless he attended School A, his VR&E program benefits would “lapse.” King insisted that this veteran enroll in School A despite the veteran’s protests that he could not engage in physical security work due to a physical disability, and despite the fact that the veteran had enrolled in the VR&E program to pursue his dream of becoming a baker.
In early 2017, the VA initiated a fact-finding inquiry into Atius based on complaints by students as to the quality of education at the school. In August 2017, after King became aware of the inquiry, he created a falsified site visit report and instructed Poawui to send it to another VA official, all in an effort to obstruct the VA’s inquiry into Atius. In January 2018, King attempted to convince Poawui to lie to the grand jury about the purpose of the bribe payments.
King’s plea is the result of an ongoing investigation by the FBI’s Washington Field Office and the VA Office of Inspector General. Trial Attorney Simon J. Cataldo of the Criminal Division’s Public Integrity Section, former Assistant U.S. Attorney and current Fraud Section Trial Attorney Sonali D. Patel and Assistant U.S. Attorney David Misler of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia are prosecuting the case.
Information from US Department of Justice