STEALING FROM THE STATE: Retired educator received $1.7M from ACS

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Mar. 23—A Tuscaloosa County man mentioned more than 150 times in a federal indictment involving four local former educators received more than $1.7 million from Athens City Schools for his role in the multiyear scheme, records show.

Greg Corkren is described in the indictment as a "longtime friend of (former Athens City Schools Superintendent) Trey Holladay" who retired from his career as a public educator around 2015. The indictment lists teacher, athletics coach and administrator among the job titles he held during his career, and records show at least one of those roles had him working in Cleburne County as a middle school principal while Rick Carter, another Athens educator named in the indictment, worked as a high school principal in the same district.

They also each worked at Oxford High School. In an article announcing the Cleburne County Board of Education's decision to hire them, The Anniston Star reported Carter had been an assistant principal at Oxford High, while Corkren had been a graduation coach. The article did not mention if they worked at the school at the same time.

Years later in Limestone County, while Carter was working for Athens City Schools, the two would work with Holladay and others to obtain state education funds based on fraudulent student enrollment counts.

According to the indictment, Corkren met with Holladay in February 2016 and was asked by Holladay to form a limited liability corporation that Corkren could use to contract with ACS and meet with private schools to offer incentives in exchange for student information. By this point, Holladay had already made a deal with Marengo Academy for the 2015-2016 school year in which ACS would provide laptops and access to online courses for Marengo Academy students in exchange for Marengo Academy officials providing student identifying information, transcripts and grades for ACS.

Once they got the student information, "ACS officials then, acting at Trey Holladay's direction, used that information to enroll the Marengo Academy students into ACS's student information management database," the indictment reads. "By doing so, the ACS officials made it appear that the Marengo Academy students were full-time non-resident virtual students of ACS."

Corkren created Educational Opportunities and Management LLC in late February 2016, according to the indictment. He was the sole member, and by April, Ed Op and ACS had entered into a services agreement that mentioned "a significant number" of Athens Renaissance students would be expected from Marengo County during the next school year.

For Ed Op's services, ACS would pay $45 per student per month, according to the agreement.

Traveling the state

Leading up to the 2016-2017 school year, Corkren attended a "Digital Learning Showcase" hosted by ACS, the indictment says. The event was also attended by representatives from Jackson Academy in Jackson, Pickens Academy in Carrolton, the Lakeside School in Eufaula and Southern Academy in Greensboro. The indictment says Holladay discussed with the representatives the various benefits of working with ACS, and each agreed to provide ACS with information about their students.

According to the indictment, Corkren not only received information from the schools but visited their campuses to deliver between 40 and 50 laptops each. The laptops had been purchased with ACS funds and in some cases, "bore ACS property inventory stickers," the indictment states.

As for the information provided by the schools, Corkren received for each student an "enrollment form" with "the student's name, the parent or guardian's name, the student's address, the student's grade during the 2016-2017 school year, the student's date of birth, and the student's school," along with space for a signature from a guardian or authorized official.

The indictment says Corkren advised private school employees that they could sign on behalf of the students, "because Trey Holladay told him" they could. When it was revealed that some of the addresses belonged to students who lived outside of Alabama, the indictment alleges Holladay told Corkren to have the headmasters create false Alabama addresses for those students.

The indictment doesn't state whether the headmasters did this, but does say "thereafter, Corkren created false Alabama addresses for the out-of-state students" by finding vacant homes on real estate websites, then sending the addresses to Carter, who would "cause ACS officials to enter the false addresses into ACS's student information management database as though the students resided at the false addresses."

Corkren also collected "Verification Release Forms" that did not have space for a parent or guardian to sign and were instead signed by a private school official.

"The ACS officials kept each form in an ACS file as supposed proof that the subject student had un-enrolled from a private school before enrolling in Athens Renaissance," the indictment says.

However, the students named and their parents "did not intend to enroll as full-time public school students for the 2016-2017 school year and ... did not intend to un-enroll from their respective private schools."

When each semester of the school year ended, Corkren received copies of students' report cards or a list of their grades. According to the indictment, he was then tasked with modifying the cards or lists to omit the name of the student's private school so they could be filed as though the student had earned the grade through Athens Renaissance.

The process of retrieving information and official signatures, in most cases without parental knowledge, continued during the 2017-2018 school year as more private schools, public school systems and one-person companies were brought into the scheme.

Money flow

The original agreement approved by ACBOE allowed for $45 per student per month to Ed Op, Corkren's company. Between June 2016 and July 31, 2017, ACS financial statements show the company was paid a total of $645,437. Records show he also received payments from Limestone County Schools for more than $120,000 during the same time period.

When the 2017-2018 school year rolled around, Ed Op renewed its contract with ACS, but changes were made. Instead of expecting to enroll students from only Marengo County, ACS now anticipated students from Marengo, Coffee, Conecuh, Elmore and Barbour counties "and nearby areas," according to the agreement approved by ACBOE.

Payments also increased. If it was the student's first year being counted as an ACS student, Ed Op would be paid $45 per month for providing services. If it was not their first year, Ed Op would be paid $150 per month.

According to ACS financial records, Ed Op would receive about $1.06 million from ACS from September 2017 to June 2018. The contract would also be used to help Ed Op obtain a consumer loan from First State Bank of the South for $75,000 ahead of the school year, when "Ed Op did not have sufficient funds to pay Tutt and the private schools," according to the indictment.

The indictment says the funds Ed Op received from ACS and other sources were used for monthly payments to Tutt Educational, who in turn made payments to Sage, a company owned by Holladay's wife, Deborah Holladay; to private schools; to private school employees "to make it appear that private school employees were independent contractors of Ed Op"; and to a charity affiliated with LCS' then-superintendent Tom Sisk.

Corkren also paid for vehicle repairs for the Holladay family and withdrew U.S. currency "on multiple occasions" to give to Holladay and Carter, the indictment says. It specifically notes three meetings: one in October 2016 in Winston County to give money to Holladay, a second in Pike County in June 2017 to give money to Carter and a third in Dallas County in November 2017 to give money to Holladay and Carter while visiting a member of Holladay's family.

The charges

For these actions and others referenced in the indictment, Corkren faces two charges: one count of conspiracy to commit wire or mail fraud and one count of aggravated identity theft. He initially joined the other five individuals listed in the indictment in pleading not guilty but last week announced an intent to change his plea to guilty.

A hearing has been tentatively set for April via video teleconference. However, if Corkren decides he wishes for the hearing to be held in person, the court could delay until the pandemic has lifted enough for it be safe to do so.

The News Courier will have more on the indictment in future edition.