SAN PABLO -- Nearly two dozen people face charges related to a widespread financial aid scam in which they received money to attend Contra Costa College but never went to class, a prosecutor said Thursday.
About 20 of those phony students -- some charged in the scam, some not -- received As, Bs or Cs in drama classes in which they apparently never set foot, triggering an internal investigation at the college district centering on the drama department.
Longtime drama department chairman Clay David, who was later placed on leave, filed a claim against the college alleging he was punished for speaking out against homophobia on campus. He no longer works at the college and district officials would not say Thursday what led to his being placed on leave.
The scheme, known as a "Pell runner" scam, has plagued colleges across the country, with the abuse of financial aid money costing taxpayers untold millions. But it is believed to be the first of its kind in Contra Costa County.
"I'm sure there are other people who are doing this that are getting away with it," said Contra Costa prosecutor Dodie Katague, who is handling this case. "The scam is easy to commit: you just have to lie on your application that you are broke, get a check and after you get a check you withdraw from the classes. It's very hard to catch because the record-keeping is lax."
The elaborate fraud ring at the San Pablo community college campus, according to prosecutors, was hatched by a Richmond couple in 2011. Authorities say ringleader Yvette Hummel, 45, and her boyfriend David Murphy, 54, ran the scheme like a business, using fliers and contracts to recruit people for their scam. Hummel would obtain personal information from the recruits and use it to enroll them in college classes and apply for financial aid, court records show.
In exchange, Hummel asked for a 25 percent slice, about $675 of the $2,775 a student on financial aid receives per semester, and offered a $50 referral fee, records show. None of the alleged scam artists is younger than 30, and many are in their 50s, 60s and 70s.
The fraud was uncovered after one student came forward, Katague said. Investigators, including the FBI and the Department of Education, realized all 22 people involved were sharing the same two addresses belonging to Hummel.
Criminal charges were filed in November, but the case remains active, with authorities searching for eight suspects. Four suspects, including Hummel and Murphy, have taken plea deals that include jail time and probation; Hummel must pay $83,740 in restitution to the college. The 10 remaining suspects have court dates this month.
The fraud was limited to the college district's San Pablo campus, officials said, and did not occur at either Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill or Los Medanos College in Pittsburg.
The scam isn't the first for the college district, however. In 2007, dozens of students in the college district, most of them at DVC, were charged with felonies involving a cash-for-grades scheme. Most pleaded no contest to reduced charges, and some were expelled from school or had degrees rescinded.
In the "Pell runner" scam, students apply for the aid with a federal agency, which sends reports to the college detailing who is eligible for the money. District spokesman Tim Leong said all the students on paper appeared to be eligible for financial aid, and so were sent checks.
The investigation found that drama instructors did nothing criminal, Katague said, but raised questions about grading in the department, which resulted in the district-led investigation.
Said prosecutor Katague, "They were good at drama and lousy at bookkeeping."
During the investigation, the college district placed David on administrative leave based on accusations of misconduct and unprofessional behavior, but did not elaborate on the allegations. The district and David signed a settlement agreement in February in which David resigned but remains eligible to keep his retirement benefits.
David, a tenured professor who has taught and directed theater on campus for 19 years, declined to comment, citing a clause in the settlement agreement.
David, who is openly gay, said in his October 2012 claim against the district that the campus has a history of homophobia. The claim seeks an amount in excess of $25,000 from the district, saying he was subject to harassment, including gay slurs and threats by students in class, and that his pleas for help were ignored by administrators.
Staff writer Malaika Fraley contributed to this report. Contact David DeBolt at 925-943-8048. Follow him at Twitter.com/daviddebolt.