A receipt for classes signed by a former Indiana Tech employee who left the college in 2013 helped lead investigators to at least one former worker accused of stealing from a defense contractor with operations in Fort Wayne, a federal prosecutor said.
Latonya D. Smith, 40, pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud Friday in U.S. District Court in Fort Wayne. A hearing in which she admitted taking part in the scheme revealed for the first time details about how it was uncovered.
Twenty-four people are accused of stealing more than $600,000 through a BAE Systems tuition assistance program that provided upfront payments to workers.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stacey Speith said Smith received $6,750 in September 2013 for six classes she registered for at Indiana Tech. A receipt that included information about the classes and the cost was signed by someone Speith identified at “L. O-T.”
That person had been an Indiana Tech employee, Speith said, but left the position in the school's business office months before the receipt was issued.
The FBI was asked to investigate in 2016, she said.
It is not clear whether receipts from each of the defendants charged in the case list the former college employee.
Speith referred questions to Ryan Holmes, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office.
Holmes said he could not comment.
BAE, a subsidiary of British defense contractor BAE Systems PLC, has offices near Fort Wayne International Airport and provides parts to aircraft manufacturers including Lockheed Martin and Boeing. It changed the tuition assistance program in 2013 to allow upfront payments, and employees quickly began signing up for classes and pocketing the money, according to federal indictments.
Amounts stolen by workers range from $11,880 to $55,056.
Smith worked at BAE from 2004 to 2016 and stole $27,000 through the program, court documents filed in January said. She was charged with four counts of wire fraud, but prosecutors have agreed to dismiss three, according to a plea agreement filed in March.
She is the first to plead guilty, though David P. Rinderle Jr. and Brian R. Dunbar also have filed paperwork to enter guilty pleas.
“So you were defrauding your employer by making them think you were taking the classes but you were not taking the classes?” U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul R. Cherry asked.
“Yes,” Smith replied.
She faces up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, but the plea agreement recommends a lower sentence. She will pay back the $27,000 and could testify against others charged, according to the agreement.
Cherry said Judge Theresa Springmann will decide whether to accept the plea agreement. A sentencing hearing has not been set.
Under the program, employees were required to submit information including proof of registration, a tuition bill, a completion certificate and grades.
Employees allegedly used software called Peoplesoft provided by BAE to submit requests to company servers in New Hampshire that provided all of that information.
Also charged are Demarcus L. Benson, Tennille M. Bright, Keyana S. Brooks, Damon E. Bryant, Jason C. Butz, Stephanie M. Dates, Aleece A. Good, Andre J. Hollis, Calvin J. Howell, Shynell E. Hutchins, Dawaun A. Jackson, Frank J. Martin III, Leamon D. Perry, Tia N. Russell, Tonya L. Sterling, Amber N. Szajna, Detrick D. Tubbs, Marjorie R. Warfield, Therese B. Whitsett, Darlene V. Wilson and Nicholas A. Young.
Plea hearings for Rinderle and Dunbar are scheduled for April 16 and 19, respectively.