Ex-inmate gets 4 years for student aid fraud

ST. LOUIS (AP) — A former South Carolina inmate has been sentenced to more than four years in prison for using the identities of 23 fellow prisoners to fraudulently collect hundreds of thousands of student financial aid through Webster University in suburban St. Louis.

Michelle Owens, 35, of Florence, S.C., pleaded guilty in June to one count each of federal student financial aid fraud and mail fraud. She was sentenced Thursday in Florence, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office in St. Louis.

Federal prosecutors say Owens submitted fraudulent admission applications to Webster University in Webster Groves, Mo., by using personal information taken from other inmates at Leath Correctional Institution in South Carolina. She sought $467,500 in federally backed student loans.

The U.S. Attorney’s office said that as part of the plea agreement she was ordered to pay $128,852 in restitution.

“We’re glad that the system seems to have worked and glad that it’s resolved,” said Susan Kerth, a spokeswoman for the university.

Owens gained access to the social security numbers, birthdates and other personal information of inmates while serving a forgery sentence in the South Carolina prison from December 2007 to September 2008. Owens worked in the prison’s education department while she was an inmate and submitted the fraudulent financial aid documents from around the time she arrived in prison through October 2009, according to the plea document.

The plea agreement said the other inmates were unaware of the fraud and had no intention of taking online courses through Webster University, which offers a wide variety of online classes.

After the student financial aid was paid to the university, any amounts in excess of tuition and fees were deposited on electronic debit cards to be used by the students for education expenses such as books, supplies and housing. Owens then made cash withdrawals or expenses totaling $124,821 from those student debit cards, the plea agreement said.

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