Four plead in federal financial aid scandal at Columbus Apex School of Theology

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All the suspects in a $12 million student financial aid scandal at Columbus’ now defunct Apex School of Theology have pleaded guilty in federal court, just weeks before the case was set for trial.

Four defendants pleaded guilty Thursday before U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land, and a fifth already entered a guilty plea on Sept. 16. A sixth suspect has died since the case was indicted, authorities said.

They were charged in a conspiracy to defraud the federal government by obtaining loans or Pell Grants for students who did no coursework, and then concocting tests, assignments, background information and other documentation to support the scheme investigators said lasted eight years, from August 2010 to May 2018.

Here are the defendants pleading guilty Thursday:

  • Sandra Anderson, 63, represented by attorney Bill Dillon

  • Leo Frank Thomas, 56, represented by Brian Jarrard

  • Yolanda Brown Thomas, 51, represented by Jennifer Curry

  • Kristina Parker, 35, represented by Nicole Williams

A fifth suspect, Erica Montgomery, pleaded guilty in September, and the sixth, Dorothy Webb, died after she was indicted.

Montgomery and Leo Thomas each pleaded to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Leslie Garthwaite, assistant chief of the fraud section for the justice department’s criminal division, told the court the maximum penalty for that offense is 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000, plus restitution.

The other three defendants in court Thursday pleaded to a multi-count indictment alleging one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, five counts of wire fraud and four of financial aid fraud.

Garthwaite said the maximum penalty for wire fraud is the same as for the wire fraud conspiracy charge: 20 years and a $250,000 fine.

For financial aid fraud, the maximum is five years in prison and a $20,000 fine, the prosecutor said. Added to the other penalties, that means each of the three faces a sentence of up to 120 years, the prosecutor said.

They also will have to pay restitution in amounts the court has yet to set. Land scheduled their sentencing hearing for Dec. 15. The case had been set for trial Oct. 17.

Leo Frank Thomas entered his plea Thursday under a plea agreement with prosecutors that precludes his appealing the case. The others did not.

Curry, who represented Yolanda Brown Thomas, said after court that an advantage to declining a plea agreement is her client can file an appeal, after her sentencing, to challenge the sentence she gets or dispute other aspects of the case.

The scheme

Authorities said the suspects operated the learning center in Columbus on behalf of what Garthwaite called “Apex Main,” a theological school headquartered in Durham, North Carolina, with satellite learning centers offering instruction both online and in-person.

Taking advantage of the grants and loans authorized by the 1965 Higher Education Act, the defendants recruited others to act as students to apply for federal aid. The fake students did no work and attended no classes, but split their financial aid with the suspects, who used those funds to enrich themselves, the feds said.

The indictment says they acted in the these roles:

  • Montgomery, who owned and operated a tax-preparation business called Dylon Tax Service, recruited for the Columbus center

  • Anderson directed the Columbus center

  • Leo Frank Thomas and Yolanda Brown Thomas, who were married, were instructors at the center

  • Webb, who lived in Columbus and in Las Vegas, also was an instructor

  • Parker was an administrative assistant

They plagiarized work for the fake students, took tests and used the school’s website to make it appear to the Department of Education that they were actual students making academic progress, investigators said.

They also created fake email accounts and log-ins for posting classwork online, and false GEDs to satisfy requirements that those enrolled had high school diplomas. Montgomery told recruits they could get “free money” without doing any school work, the feds allege.

To get those recruits enrolled, she, Anderson and Parker not only falsified applications, but included fake “spiritual autobiographies” claiming to reflect each recruit’s “spiritual journey,” authorities said.

Some funds from federal student loan programs had to be repaid, but the Pell Grants did not, Garthwaite said. Those grants are intended only for students with “exceptional” financial need, according to the federal website