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Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Scoble stood in front of a federal judge last week in the fairly new, very nice, and downright ominous federal building in Oakland. The judge seemed to be conducting the routine beginning of a routine criminal case, holding a hearing dedicated largely to the scheduling of other hearings.
Actually, though, the case is anything but routine. It is the end result of nearly four years of investigation, during which the federal government used undercover agents, confidential informants, covert audio- and videotapings, bank records, academic transcripts, and surveillance officers to go to college in Oakland.
And when it went to school, the government says, it found scandal.
The government alleges that five people, all instructors or teaching assistants at Oakland's Laney College, orchestrated a scheme that defrauded the government of more than $3 million. Dating back to at least 1988, the alleged scam involved nearly 400 military veterans primarily of Filipino extraction who received government assistance through the GI Bill while attending Laney.
Those veterans, it is alleged, in turn paid Laney instructors to falsely verify the veterans had enrolled in and re-ceived grades for classes they had never even visited.
Earlier this summer, a grand jury indicted Laney instructors Nathan Averbuck, Earl Robinson, and Wilfred Hutchinson Jr., along with teaching assistants Camilo Asuncion and Eriberto Capili, on numerous counts of fraud and conspiracy to defraud the government. Meanwhile, in separate actions, the U.S. Attorney's Office is in the process of filing lawsuits to force as many as 400 people who allegedly participated in the scheme to repay GI benefits the government claims they fraudulently received.
By sheer numbers of alleged perpetrators, the case is one of the largest ever pursued on the West Coast.
An attorney for one of the defendants says the case is unjustified and motivated by racial animus.
"What's to me very distressing is the fact that they had singled out Filipino veterans, when there are also other students who have gone to Laney and used the GI Bill," says Rodell Rodis, attorney for Capili. "I think the conclusion that it's racist is inescapable."
The criminal charges, Rodis says, are nothing but an attempt by the government to justify an investigation that has cost nearly $500,000. (Averbuck's attorney did not return calls for this story. Neither did Laney College officials.)
Allegations about race and cost aside, the investigation has raised important questions about the seriousness of schooling at Laney College.
The charges filed this year have their genesis in a 1993 investigation at Laney College by the inspector general of the Department of Veteran's Affairs. During the course of that previous investigation, inspectors received an anonymous complaint that a student veteran had paid instructors at Laney to give him passing grades without having to participate in classes. The informant said that other student veterans at Laney were involved in similar activities.
According to court documents, the ensuing investigation unfolded this way:
In 1993, a compliance survey specialist for the VA conducting a routine survey of Laney records discovered a strange situation: Students were attending classes, but almost none of them obtained degrees at Laney or went on to four-year universities.
Furthermore, a large number of student veterans enrolled in Laney's speech or media communications courses -- most of them Filipino-Americans -- were said to be traveling as far as 80 miles, from as far away as San Jose, Stockton, and Sacramento, to attend class. The veteran students were making those extended commutes even though other community colleges closer to their homes offered similar programs.
By early 1994, federal inspectors had identified two student veterans who were attending Laney College speech classes taught by instructor Nathan Averbuck. Both were retired military personnel who had gone on to work for the federal government in civilian capacities. When confronted by government agents, both admitted paying Laney instructors and receiving passing grades for classes they never attended. Both were "turned," and became confidential witnesses for the government.
In September 1994, the Postal Inspection Service joined the investigation, because some of the allegations under investigation could constitute mail fraud. And that was when the government decided it was time to send an undercover agent to school.
According to court filings, a government mole, posing as a Filipino veteran recently retired from military service, was introduced to Averbuck by one of the government's recently recruited confidential witnesses. Averbuck took down the mole's name and told him to register for four of Averbuck's speech classes.
According to the government, Averbuck told the mole the veterans would attend evening meetings once a week. And during the next year, the government's mole and three confidential witnesses went to those meetings, which lasted from 10 minutes to an hour each.
But, the government alleges, none of the "students" actually went to class.
Assignments, if they can be called that, were sporadic, usually involving nothing more than short written or taped responses to brief readings. One assignment, for example, asked the students to read a poem about fishing, and then write a few paragraphs about a personal fishing experience. On two occasions, the mole handed in a blank audiotape as his response to an assignment; the tapes were never mentioned or questioned.