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Former Inmate Sentenced on Charges of Federal Student Aid Fraud Involving Webster University in St. Louis

U.S. Attorney’s Office September 29, 2011
  • District of South Carolina (803) 929-3000

COLUMBIA, SC—United States Attorney Bill Nettles stated today that MICHELLE OWENS, 36, of Florence, who is a former inmate at Leath, Correctional Institution in South Carolina, was sentenced Wednesday, September 28, in federal court in Florence, South Carolina, for violations of federal student financial aid fraud and mail fraud. United States District Judge R. Bryan Harwell of Florence sentenced Owens to 51 months’ imprisonment and ordered to pay $128,852.00 in restitution.

Evidence presented at the guilty plea hearing established that Michelle Owens submitted fraudulent Webster University applications and fraudulent Department of Education financial aid applications in the names of 23 different Leath, South Carolina Correctional Institution inmates seeking admission and student loans in the approximate amount of $467,500. Owens was confined to Leath from December 2007 to September 2008, and worked in the prison’s Education Department, where she had access to the personal information of other inmates.

According to court documents, from December 2007 to October 2009, 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. Owens intended to use the financial aid funds for improper non-education purposes. On those applications, Owens used several residential addresses located in South Carolina. Based upon the information contained on the applications, Webster University accepted the individuals and mailed the letters to South Carolina. Additionally, Owens falsely applied for federal student financial aid on behalf of the inmates by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) either by computer over the Internet or by paper application using the inmates personal information. Once Webster University received the required supporting documentation, they created a financial aid package for that “applicant” and mailed the award notification to the same South Carolina addresses controlled by Owens.

Owens received the excess financial aid intended for the inmate “applicants” through Higher One, Inc. in the form of debit/MasterCard cards, which she cashed or used for personal expenses totaling $124,821.

This case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Postal Inspection Service, and the Department of Education. Assistant United States Attorney Brad Parham in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Florence, South Carolina prosecuted the case, with the assistance of Assistant United States Attorney Hal Goldsmith from the St. Louis U.S. Attorney’s Office.

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