Caught wasting more than $2 million in federal funds from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in exchange for bribes, a former VA official pleaded guilty Friday to one count of honest services and money/property wire fraud, one count of bribery, and one count of falsifying records to obstruct an administrative investigation. The former VA official is the fourth person to plead guilty as part of this investigation.
From 2015 through 2017, James King used his position as a Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) program counselor at the VA to demand bribes from the owners of at least three separate schools in exchange for funds using the veterans’ federal benefits. The VR&E program is a VA program that 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.
Between August 2015 and December 2017, King received more than $155,000 in bribes from Albert Poawui, the owner of Atius Technology Institute, a privately owned, non-accredited school specializing in information technology courses. In exchange for the illicit bribes, King facilitated over $2 million in payments to Atius. Joining the conspiracy in October 2016, Sombo Kanneh, the financial manager of Atius Technology Institute, also personally hand-delivered cash bribes to King.
In September 2016, King facilitated the first tuition payment to Eelon Training Academy, a privately owned, non-accredited school purporting to specialize in digital media courses. Shortly afterwards, King told Michelle Stevens, the owner of Eelon, to give him seven percent of the federal funds. Stevens made two cash payments of $1,500 to King in exchange for Eelon receiving $83,000 from the VA.
King similarly accepted cash payments from the owner of a third school, purporting to specialize in physical security classes, in exchange for the same official acts. The third school received more than $340,000 from the VA with King abusing his position as a VR&E program counselor.
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, after Poawui had begun to cooperate with the government in its investigation, King attempted to convince Poawui to lie to the grand jury about the purpose of the bribe payments.
“For years, James King and his criminal associates defrauded an important VA program that provides education services to military veterans who served our country,” said Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski. “The Justice Department is committed to prosecuting those who seek to illegally enrich themselves at the expense of programs intended to help our brave servicemembers.”
“James King took advantage of his position with the VA by participating in a scam that took money from programs meant to help our disabled military veterans find jobs and enhance their education,” stated U.S. Attorney Jessie Liu for the District of Columbia. “This investigation shows that we will do everything we can to ensure that taxpayer money intended for our veterans is put to its proper use, not siphoned off by the people and organizations who are entrusted with helping them.”
On April 16, Poawui pleaded guilty to one count of bribing a public official. Three days later, Kanneh pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to bribe a public official. On July 17, Stevens pleaded guilty to one count of bribing a public official.
On Friday, King pleaded guilty to an Information alleging one count of honest services and money/property wire fraud, one count of bribery, and one count of falsifying records to obstruct an administrative investigation.
“King tried to use his position to enrich himself at the expense of veterans who have honorably served our country,” asserted FBI Special Agent in Charge Matthew DeSarno. “This guilty plea makes it perfectly clear that such activity by anyone affiliated with the U.S. government will not be tolerated.”
“King’s plea is a win for VA and our veterans,” said Kim Lampkins, Special Agent in Charge of the VA-OIG Mid-Atlantic Field Office. “It 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.”
King’s sentencing is scheduled for January 15, 2019.