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The Journal Gazette

Tuesday, May 15, 2018 1:00 am

Worker admits tuition fraud role

MATTHEW LEBLANC | The Journal Gazette

A fired BAE Systems employee Monday admitted stealing $37,500 from the defense contractor with offices in Fort Wayne and said he helped co-workers net more than $500,000 through a tuition assistance program set up by the company.

Robin C. Opper, 35, told Magistrate Susan Collins in U.S. District Court in Fort Wayne he falsified paperwork that was used to provide fraudulent documentation that he and others attended college classes. He said he used company software at his home to secure transcripts and receipts allowing them to hold on to money through the program, even though they did not attend classes.

“(I) fabricated the documents,” he said.

The comments came during a plea hearing Monday and make clearer the case against Opper and 30 other BAE employees charged with wire fraud. Charging documents had provided few details about how employees became aware of the alleged scheme or how they might have been helped to participate.

The employees submitted fraudulent claims, according to court documents, and prosecutors said in April that Opper helped some of them secure money through the program.

Terrell D. Ward-Thomas, 46, also pleaded guilty Monday, admitting to stealing $6,750.  

Opper and “a couple others” assisted co-workers to defraud the company, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stacey Speith said.

As of 5 p.m. Monday, court records show Opper is the only BAE employee accused of helping co-workers pocket money from the program.

Speith said BAE officials were told about the scheme by an anonymous employee. The company began an investigation and contacted the FBI in 2016, she said.

Opper was interviewed by federal investigators and admitted his role, Speith said.

BAE is a subsidiary of a British defense contractor and has offices near Fort Wayne International Airport. It changed its tuition assistance program in 2013 to allow upfront payments.

Employees began taking advantage of the program soon after, and more than $700,000 was pocketed, court documents allege. Amounts allegedly stolen by individual employees range from $6,750 to $55,056.

Workers were required to submit documentation including proof of registration, a tuition bill, a completion certificate and grades. Employees allegedly used company software to submit that information to servers in New Hampshire.

Opper attended Indiana Tech in 2012 and used information on documents from that time to submit fraudulent information to BAE, Speith said. She said receipts included the name of a university employee who left Indiana Tech in March 2013 – well before requests for assistance were filed by workers at BAE.  

A plea agreement calls for Opper and 21 workers identified in court documents by their initials to pay back $529,118.50. He will also pay back the $37,500 he admitted stealing, according to the agreement.

Ward-Thomas will pay back $6,750, a plea agreement states.

Latonya D. Smith, David P. Rinderle Jr. and Brian R. Dunbar also have pleaded guilty to wire fraud.  

mleblanc@jg.net