After aid papers are forged, city colleges repay $4 million

SHARE After aid papers are forged, city colleges repay $4 million

The dead have voted in Chicago. Now, they’ve also signed papers swearing their kids were eligible for financial aid to attend one of the City Colleges of Chicago, documents obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show.

A dispute over whether students at Kennedy-King College got more financial aid than they were entitled to has been settled with the City Colleges repaying the federal government nearly $4.3 million, the records show.

The settlement stems from a 2009 federal Department of Education review of Kennedy-King’s financial-aid program. The agency said the City Colleges school at 63rd and Halsted needed to do more to show that students who got federal financial aid to go there between 2007 and 2009 qualified for all the aid they received.

By 2011, things had gotten testier. The federal agency declared Kennedy-King had “failed to address” the earlier findings and demanded it repay $10.3 million in financial aid it said the school had “improperly disbursed” to students.

City Colleges officials argued the problem amounted to “technical discrepancies and omissions” that involved only about $223,000 in overpayments. The City Colleges board — a panel of mayoral appointees — reimbursed that amount to Washington.

City Colleges also put together a team to try to find students and parents who could provide missing documents or signatures to prove the aid was legitimate. It submitted its appeal to the Department of Education in the summer of 2011.

But signatures submitted on that documentation were forged, investigators for both the Department of Education and the City Colleges found.

Nearly half the files failed to show Kennedy-King students qualified for the financial aid they got, according to the federal agency. Education Department officials said the files the City Colleges sent as part of their appeal “contained signatures of students and/or parents that were ‘cut and pasted’ from other documents or appeared to be forged.” Altogether, they counted 79 files with “suspect signatures.”

John A. Gasiorowski, the City Colleges’ inspector general, also investigated, and he confirmed 11 instances of forgery. He based that in part on interviews with students and parents.

“Several of these interviews were corroborated by the fact that the purported signer was deceased or out of the country on the date that the signature was purportedly made,” Gasiorowski wrote in a report outlining his findings.

He said his office also “observed various other no doubt fraudulently created signatures on forms contained in student financial-aid files but . . . was not able to make contact with those students to verify the legitimacy of the signatures.”

But he didn’t recommend disciplinary action because his investigation “was unable to identify the individual(s) who committed the acts of forgery.”

Department of Education officials said Tabitha O’Neil, Kennedy-King’s director of student financial aid, acknowledged problems with the additional documentation sent in. They said she told investigators she left work sick on the Thursday before the City Colleges’ appeal was due and that many of the files hadn’t been completed by then, so she was “very surprised” to find everything finished when she returned to work the following Monday.

“She stated that it was not possible to get that many files ‘done’ over the three days prior to the Monday deadline, when her staff had been working on them for months without successfully reaching the students and/or their parents,” according to Department of Education records.

According to those records, O’Neil told other City Colleges officials she found documents with “blatantly altered signatures that appeared on the front of tax returns . . . and signatures that obviously did not match one another but were supposedly signed by the same person.”

City Colleges officials disputed that, saying there was “no massive weekend ‘curing’ of files.”

The Department of Education concluded “the ultimate scope and magnitude of the altered student files will never be known” and agreed to settle the case earlier this year for $4 million in addition to the money the City Colleges already repaid.

The federal agency didn’t accuse any City Colleges employees of wrongdoing. But it noted that City Colleges officials involved in the preparation of the appeal retired soon after the doctored documents were submitted. City Colleges records show two people involved in the appeal retired within four months.

City Colleges officials agreed to the settlement, paying $2 million on June 27 and another $2 million on Sept. 26, records show.

City Colleges officials say they’ve made changes in staff and taken other steps “to avoid the initial problems with the financial aid files, as well as the potential for fraud.”

Department of Education officials wouldn’t comment.

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