By Carlos Restrepo
According to a December FBI press release, a federal grand jury has indicted Michelle N. Owens, an inmate at Leath Correctional Institution in South Carolina, with one count of student financial aid fraud, one felony count of mail fraud and one felony count of aggravated identity theft for submitting fraudulent financial aid applications through Webster University’s online learning program.
Owens, from Florence, South Carolina, allegedly sent the applications in the name of 23 Leath inmates while she was serving time from December 2007 to September 2008. She applied for a total of $467,500 in financial aid. Because she worked in the prison’s education department, the FBI said Owens had access to the personal information of other inmates.
“Owens submitted online applications for admission to Webster University’s distance learning program in the names of individuals who were inmates at Leath without their knowledge,” the press release stated. “Owens intended to use the financial aid funds for improper non-education purposes.”
Owens received the excess financial aid through a Higher One card. The indictment shows her total personal expenses to be $123,821. The FBI, the Postal Inspection Service, and the Department of Education investigated the case before handing their findings to Asst. United States Attorney Hal Goldsmith, who is handling the case for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
According to the indictment, the charges do not constitute proof of guilt. If found guilty however, Owens could face a maximum penalty of five years in prison and/or fines up to $20,000 for student financial aid fraud. If found guilty of mail fraud, the maximum penalty is 20 years in prison and/or fines up to $250,000.
Dan Viele, director of the online learning center at Webster said the finance office contacted the online learning center with a list of student names. Viele said the finance office asked him to verify the extent of participation of those students in their online courses.
The University denied to comment further on the matter, said Vicky Fredrick, acting vice president for finance and administration.
“The University cannot comment on this press release or any aspect thereof,” Fredrick said. “This is an FBI matter and the legal process ongoing.”