National News

Former Financial Aid Chief at Columbia Is Accused of Taking Kickbacks

Posted January 11, 2018 10:34 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — The former director of financial aid at Columbia University’s Teachers College took $375,000 in kickbacks from three graduate students after arranging for them to receive inflated awards, the federal authorities said Thursday.

In one case, a student received nearly $600,000 in stipends between 2011 and 2017, and kicked back nearly $300,000 to the former administrator, Melanie Williams-Bethea, the authorities said.

Checks from that student, Annice Kpana, were often written within days of when stipend funds were deposited into her account and frequently included notations like “Love” or “Thank you!” in the memo line, according to a criminal complaint unsealed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

Kpana has been enrolled as a graduate student since 2007, but since at least 2010 she has not been taking classes or actively pursuing her degree, the complaint said. She was seeking a master’s degree in education, it noted.

The other students charged were Carmen Canty and Kyla Thomas, both of whom have been enrolled since 2005 and have not obtained their degrees, according to the complaint. Both were seeking doctoral degrees in education, it said.

Williams-Bethea had “personal, social relationships” with all three students, the complaint said. She and Kpana, for example, took a Caribbean cruise together in 2011 and also vacationed together in Hawaii, the Dominican Republic, New Orleans and Anguilla, the complaint said.

Williams-Bethea and each of the three students face conspiracy and bribery charges. Lawyers for the four defendants either declined to comment or could not be reached for comment.

Among the ways Williams-Bethea orchestrated the scheme, the complaint said, was by awarding aid to the students from a stipend fund that she controlled, or by “creating fraudulent stipend request forms, on which she forged the signatures of other administrators or faculty members who purportedly had requested that Kpana, Canty and Thomas receive stipends for their studies.”

The “alleged falsification of documents to show extreme financial hardship enabled the student defendants cumulatively to pocket hundreds of thousands of dollars for which they did not qualify,” said Geoffrey S. Berman, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan.

The complaint said Williams-Bethea was the financial aid director at Teachers College from 2005 through May 2017, when she was fired after the school discovered evidence of the unjustified financial aid payments.

The school, in a statement, said it acted last spring after irregularities were discovered in the disbursement of financial aid to several students.

“We immediately launched an internal investigation,” the school said, “which identified improper actions by a single staff member.” The school said it had reported its findings to federal and state authorities, and had been working closely with federal investigators “to uncover all the facts related to these improper actions.”

“We take the matter of fraud and the misappropriation of College funds very seriously, and remain deeply distressed over the betrayal of trust in this matter,” the statement said.