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Three defendants plead guilty in virtual education fraud case

Former Marengo Academy coach David Webb Tutt, 61, of Uniontown, Alabama, was indicted in February for involvement in a multi-million dollar educational fraud. He and three other defendants plead guilty to the charges on April 8. The other defendants who pleaded guilty are: Thomas Michael Sisk, 55, of Toney, Alabama and formerly the superintendent of LCS; Gregory Earl Corkren, 56, of Tuscaloosa, Alabama

The three defendants pleaded guilty to conspiring to defraud the Alabama State Department of Education (ASDE) by falsely inflating the number of students enrolled in public virtual schools, announced the United States Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Alabama.

The indictment charges that the superintendents of the Athens City Schools district (ACS) and the Limestone County Schools district (LCS) conspired to fraudulently include in public virtual schools students who were in reality full-time students of private schools located in other parts of the state. As a result of reporting these fraudulently enrolled students, districts received payments from Alabama’s Education Trust Fund as if the students actually attended public schools. The various defendants then received, for their own personal use, portions of the state money. The defendants skimmed the state money through direct cash payments and through payments to third-party contractors owned by the various co-conspirators.

        To obtain private school student information for use in the scheme, the defendants offered various benefits to private schools, most of which were located in Alabama’s Black Belt region. Those benefits included: laptop computers, access to online curriculum, standardized testing, and monetary payments. The students whose identities were used in the scheme had little to no connection to the public school districts. Those students continued to attend brick-and-mortar private schools each day; they continued to participate in private school athletics; and their parents continued to pay tuition to the private schools.

        During his plea hearing, Sisk admitted that, in 2016, his co-defendant, William L. “Trey” Holladay, III, then the superintendent of neighboring ACS, suggested that Sisk could obtain more students for his virtual school by contracting with a company owned by Holladay’s friend, Corkren. Sisk admitted that he and Holladay were trying to add students to their enrollments to offset local tax revenue that was being lost to neighboring school districts. Sisk testified that when Holladay referred him to Corkren, Holladay suggested to him that Corkren would also be willing to make payments to Sisk personally. According to Sisk, he then contracted with Corkren and Corkren provided private school student information to be used to falsely enroll the students in the Limestone County Virtual School. These students remained falsely enrolled during the 2016-2017 school year. Throughout the year, Holladay assisted Sisk in making sure that the scheme went undetected. Additionally, Sisk admitted that he directed Corkren to pay approximately $13,000.00 to a charity with which he was affiliated. That money eventually found its way to Sisk, and Sisk used it for personal expenses including trips to New Orleans and Denver.

        Corkren admitted in his guilty plea that in around 2016, he agreed with Trey Holladay to form a company and then serve as an intermediary between ACS and the various private schools. Corkren acknowledged providing computers, checks, and other benefits to the private schools in exchange for student information. He also stated that, at the direction of Trey Holladay, he prepared false documents regarding the private school students’ performances in virtual courses. The documents were false in that they showed that the students were completing virtual courses when in fact the students were not doing so and were instead taking traditional courses. Trey Holladay then submitted these false documents to the ASDE. For his work, Corkren explained that he received per-student payments from ACS and the other public school districts. Corkren then gave cash payments to Trey Holladay and co-defendant William Richard “Rick” Carter. Corkren described meeting Carter in Troy, Alabama on one occasion in June of 2017 and giving Carter cash on that day. Corkren’s plea agreement states that Corkren personally received in excess of $500,000.00 from the scheme. Additionally, over the course of the conspiracy, he paid Trey Holladay approximately $90,000.00 in cash and he paid Rick Carter approximately $21,000.00 in cash.

        During his plea hearing, Tutt stated that, in 2017, Trey Holladay invited him to participate in the conspiracy by recruiting additional private schools to provide student information. Tutt agreed to do so. Tutt testified that he received monthly payments from Corkren’s company in the amount of $33,000.00. At the direction of Trey Holladay, he paid half of each payment, or $16,500.00, to a company owned by Trey Holladay’s wife, co-defendant Deborah Irby Holladay. Tutt did not know what work Deborah Holladay was doing for this money.

        At some upcoming date, the defendants will be sentenced. Each of the three defendants listed above pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit offenses against the United States and, as a result, faces a maximum five-year sentence. Additionally, Corkren pleaded guilty to aggravated identity theft and could receive an additional two-year sentence for that offense.

        The remaining individuals—Trey Holladay, Deborah Holladay, and Rick Carter—are scheduled for a trial beginning on September 13, 2021 in Montgomery. An indictment merely alleges that a crime has been committed. These remaining defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

        This case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the United States Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General. The Alabama Attorney General’s Office also assisted in the investigation. Assistant United States Attorneys Jonathan S. Ross, Alice S. LaCour, and Brett J. Talley are prosecuting the case.

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