A Fort Wayne woman pleaded guilty to wire fraud in federal court Tuesday, becoming the seventh former employee of a local defense contractor to admit stealing from the company through a tuition assistance program.
Amber N. Szajna, 33, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Fort Wayne to one count of wire fraud. Prosecutors agreed to drop two other wire fraud charges in exchange for the guilty plea.
She is among 31 BAE Systems workers accused of participating in a scheme that netted nearly $800,000 for employees who signed up to take college classes and pocketed reimbursements but never took the classes.
“I signed up for classes, but I never took those classes,” she said.
Szajna, who worked for the company from 2009 to 2016, stole $18,750 through the program. BAE, a subsidiary of a British defense contractor, has offices near Fort Wayne International Airport and changed the program in 2013 to allow for upfront payments.
She and others charged in the case face 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, but plea agreements call for paying back the money to the company. A judge will decide whether to order them to spend time behind bars.
A sentencing hearing has not been scheduled.
Using software provided by BAE, workers submitted requests for payments and were able to secure required information, including proof of attendance and a completion certificate, prosecutors have said.
The scheme cost BAE about $767,500, according to court documents. Individual amounts allegedly stolen range from $6,750 to $55,056.
A four-page, three-count indictment returned in January charged Szajna with submitting three requests for tuition reimbursement – two in 2015 and one in 2016. Assistant U.S. Attorney Stacey Speith said one count included requests for six classes at Indiana Tech worth $6,750, with the money later deposited to a bank account in Szajna's name.
Szajna filed paperwork May 21 to plead guilty.
Brian R. Dunbar, Robin C. Opper, David P. Rinderle Jr., Tia N. Russell, Latonya D. Smith and Terrell D. Ward-Thomas also have pleaded guilty. Four other defendants – Damon E. Bryant, Jessica L. Shutt, Tonya L. Sterling and Marjorie R. Warfield – are expected to enter guilty pleas this week.