A former official at the Department of Veterans Affairs pleaded guilty to 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 according to an announcement from the Justice Department.
James King, 63, of Baltimore, Maryland, pleaded guilty 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.
He is the fourth individual to plead guilty as part of this particular investigation. In April, Albert Poawui and Sombo Kanneh pleaded guilty to bribing and conspiring to bribe King, respectively, and then in July, Michelle Stevens pleaded guilty to bribing King.
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.
From 2015 through 2017, King used his position as a VR&E program counselor to demand and then received cash bribes from the owners of Atius Technology Institute (Atius), Eelon Training Academy (Eelon), and School A (how it was identified by the Justice Department’s announcement), a school purporting to specialize in physical security classes.
He 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 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, he 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.
When King became aware of the VA’s inquiry into the situation in 2017, 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 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.”
Sentencing is set for January 15, 2019. King’s plea is part of an ongoing investigation by the FBI’s Washington Field Office and the VA Office of Inspector General. The Justice Department’s announcement did not specify what punishment King might ultimately face as a result of the guilty plea.