RALEIGH – United States Attorney Robert J. Higdon, Jr. announced that today in federal court, BRENDA JOYCE HALL, 51, of Godwin, NC, had an initial appearance on an indictment charging her with, among other things, Conspiracy to Commit Student Loan Fraud and Wire Fraud, and Aggravated Identity Theft.
United States Attorney Higdon stated, “This defendant is charged with helping to orchestrate a long-standing fraud upon one of our institutions of higher learning by fabricating high school transcripts. A scheme that is alleged to have resulted in in substantial federal education funding being used by Hall for her own personal interests and gain.”
“Per the indictment, Ms. Hall seems to have viewed Federal student aid as a private slush fund rather that what it is – funding to help students make their dream of a higher education a reality,” said Neil Sanchez, Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Department of Education Office of Inspector General Southern Regional Office. “As the law enforcement arm of the U.S. Department of Education, we are committed to fighting student aid fraud and ensuring that those who steal student aid or game the system for their own selfish purposes are stopped and held accountable for their criminal actions.”
The Indictment alleges that HALL and various others resided at a place referred to as “The Ranch” in Cumberland County, that was owned and operated by a tent revival preacher. According to the Indictment, The Ranch consisted largely of several related families, but outsiders and their children were also invited to, and did, reside there over time. The owner of The Ranch also owned various fish markets in the same area. HALL, who is alleged to have worked at The Ranch and at the fish markets, also operated a non-public home school, known as “Halls of Knowledge”, from The Ranch.
The Indictment further alleges that HALL and others carried out a scheme to fraudulently acquire hundreds of thousands of dollars in Federal Student Aid to fund the operations of the Ranch, the fish markets, and to make other purchases. To carry out the scheme, Hall and others would approach individuals residing on the Ranch and solicit their enrollment in an online course of college-level studies at Wake Tech. The individuals solicited are referred to in the Indictment as the “Student Participants.”
To attend the online course of college level studies at Wake Tech, the Student Participants were required to have successfully completed their high school level of education. But most of the Student Participants never graduated from high school, and none completed their high school education through HALL’s home school, the Halls of Knowledge. Many of the Student Participants had no genuine desire nor intention to attend college courses and graduate from Wake Tech. None had the financial means to attend college without federal student aid.
Nevertheless, the Indictment charges that HALL and others provided various assurances to the Student Participants to get them to agree to be enrolled at Wake Tech. For example, various Student Participants were told: (1) they would receive a high school diploma; (2) would receive a laptop or would get to keep some money; (3) they would not have to actually do the coursework; or (4) they would not be responsible for the student loans.
The Indictment then alleges that HALL fabricated high school transcripts for the Student Participants. The transcripts represented that each of the Student Participants successfully completed four years of high school education through Halls of Knowledge. The transcripts also fraudulently represented, for each year of study, the courses allegedly taken by the Student Participant, and the grade the Student Participant received in each course. HALL directed another resident of The Ranch to notarize these transcripts.
The Indictment alleges that HALL assisted the Student Participants to become enrolled at Wake Tech by, among other things, causing the fake transcripts and other documents to be delivered to Wake Tech. In addition to becoming enrolled in Wake Tech by fraud, Federal Student Aid was also awarded to the Student Participants based on the fraud. As much as $700,000 in federal student aid was awarded based on the fake transcripts.
The Indictment alleges that funds left over after the payment of tuition were supposed to support other educational costs for the students. But the students were not permitted by HALL and the Ranch owner to keep all of the funds. Instead, the Student Participants were directed, in some instances, to cash out the remaining funds and pay them over to The Ranch. The remaining student aid monies were then used to fund the operations of the Ranch, the fish markets, and other ventures.
The Indictment further alleges that after the Student Participants were enrolled at Wake Tech, the Students did not, in fact, attend all of the courses in which they were enrolled. Instead HALL, and others at The Ranch, would fraudulently attend and complete online courses for the Student Participants. This allowed the scheme to go on, undetected, for several years.
For her role in the conduct, HALL is charged with various federal offenses, carrying different maximum penalties. Conspiracy to Commit Student Loan Fraud, and Student Loan Fraud, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 371, and Title 20, United States Code, Section 1097(a), are punishable by up to five years in prison. Conspiracy to Commit Wire Fraud, and Wire Fraud, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Sections 1349 and 1343, are punishable by up to twenty years in prison. Aggravated Identity Theft, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1028A(a)(1), is punishable by not less than 2, nor more than two, years in prison, consecutive to any other sentence.
An indictment is an allegation of a crime. The defendant is presumed under the law to be innocent until proven guilty.
The investigation of this case is being conducted by the United States Department of Education Office of the Inspector General. Assistant United States Attorney William M. Gilmore represents the United States.
USAO - North Carolina, Eastern;
Department of Education OIG