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6 former employees at job training center charged with financial aid fraud

Sun-Times file photo

Six former employees of a Chicago postsecondary school have been charged with defrauding the federal government out of millions of dollars in student financial aid funds.

All six of them worked at the now-closed Chicago campus of the Center for Employment Training, according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office. From 2005 to 2013, they allegedly applied for federal grants and loans for students who were not eligible to receive the funds.

Marie Pickett, 59, of Chicago; Janie Blakeney, 63, of Chicago; Deborah Williams, 58, of Chicago; Jenny Morales, 36, of Cicero; Heather Smith, 43, of Cicero; and Tamaura Balark, 45, of Chicago, have each been charged with conspiracy to fraudulently obtain federal financial assistance, one count of fraudulently obtaining federal financial assistance and three counts of wire fraud, prosecutors said.

Pickett worked as the director of CET’s Chicago campus, while Blakeney was the admissions advisor, prosecutors said. Williams and Morales were financial aid officers while Smith and Balark taught in the medical assistance program.

They are accused of filling out financial aid applications for students who had not graduated high school or received an equivalency certificate, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. They created a fake diploma for one student to claim that the student had graduated from a Chicago public high school.

Their scheme caused the U.S. Department of Education to disburse “millions of dollars” in financial aid to the school, according to prosecutors.

Each count of wire fraud carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, while the financial assistance fraud counts are punishable by up to five years, prosecutors said.

Center for Employment Training President and CEO Hermelinda Sapien said the scheme was discovered by internal monitors within the school’s organization, who reported it to the City of Chicago’s Office of Inspector General. She said investigators were looking into the individual employees rather than the school itself, and that school officials cooperated with the investigation.

Sapien said the CET Chicago campus closed in October of 2015.