Former Arizona Education Department Employees Indicted For $600,000 Fraud Scheme

By Greg Moriarty | Sunday, 03 March 2024 09:30 AM
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In a recent development, three former employees of the Arizona Department of Education have been indicted on charges of conspiracy and money laundering.

Prosecutors allege that the trio orchestrated a scheme to defraud over $600,000 from an education voucher program, a program that has been under scrutiny for its escalating costs and lackadaisical regulation by the state.

The accused, Delores Lashay Sweet, Dorrian Lamarr Jones, and Jennifer Lopez, who were dismissed from the Department of Education last year, allegedly approved applications for 17 students, five of whom were non-existent. The applications were reportedly processed using counterfeit birth certificates and special education evaluations. The trio is accused of misappropriating the funds for personal gains, including luxury purchases. Two of Sweet's adult children, Jadakah Celeste Johnson and Raymond Lamont Johnson Jr., have also been charged with conspiracy and money laundering.

"They created ghost students with forged birth certificates – children that didn’t exist –- and gave them fake disability diagnoses that would make them eligible for larger funding amounts," stated Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes, whose office is currently investigating other potential abuses of the voucher program.

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Efforts to reach the accused for comments were unsuccessful, and no legal representation for them could be identified in court records.

The Democratic attorney general opined that this case underscores the vulnerability of the voucher program to fraud, urging the Republican-majority Legislature to implement measures to reduce the potential for fraud within the program.

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However, Sen. John Kavanagh, a Republican voucher supporter, argued that the issue lies not with the Empowerment Scholarships Account program but with the agency administering it. "I don’t think that it’s anymore damning of the ESA than when a bank teller steals money from the banking system," Kavanagh said. "It (the problem) is about the people, not the program."

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The alleged fraud was brought to light not by the education department, but by a credit union that noticed unusually large cash withdrawals. Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne refuted claims that his office failed to inform the Attorney General’s Office about the fraud, asserting that his office had alerted Mayes’ office about two of the three employees and had implemented more controls on the program.

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"Our discovery of the activities of the two former staffers is consistent with my determination to root out potential fraud and abuse," Horne said.

The voucher program, initiated in 2011 for disabled children, allows parents to use public funds for private-school tuition and other education costs. Over the past decade, the program has been expanded to include all students, leading to a surge in participation and costs. Originally estimated to cost $64 million for the current fiscal year, budget analysts now predict it could exceed $900 million.

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Critics argue that the program's expansion drains the state’s coffers, while supporters maintain that it enables parents to select the best school for their children. Approximately 75% of the students who received vouchers immediately after the program's expansion had no previous record of attending an Arizona public school, suggesting that the state subsidies largely benefited students whose families were already paying private school tuition.

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