Court Takes Dim View of 'Good-Hearted' Crime
(CN) - A man who tried to help Spanish-speaking students obtain federal financial aid for which they did not qualify must face fraud charges, the 9th Circuit ruled Friday.
Carlos Ezeta allegedly admitted to falsifying the applications to "help people."
While Ezeta made no money himself from the alleged scam and was indeed likely trying to "help people," he did receive "many awards and accolades for his involvement with the local Hispanic community," and thus "had a reputational interest furthered by the alleged criminal acts," Judge Richard Tallman wrote for a three-judge panel.
"A criminal act done with a good heart is still a criminal act," Tallman added.
Federal prosecutors said the professor and counselor helped eight students at the College of Southern Nevada in Las Vegas to seek financial aid, though they lacked high school diplomas or the equivalent.
While six of the students obtained a total of about $8,700 in federal money, Ezeta allegedly sought more than $37,000 through "doctored" applications between 2008 and 2011.
Department of Education investigators then sent an undercover Spanish-speaking agent to the community college to catch Ezeta in the act. The agent allegedly told Ezeta that she lacked a high school diploma, after which he took over her financial-aid application and falsely reported otherwise.
A grand jury indicted Ezeta on four counts of financial-aid fraud, but he later convinced U.S. District Robert Clive to dismiss by arguing that the law required "personal receipt, control, or possession" of the offending funds, which he said he never touched.
A unanimous appeals panel disagreed with Ezeta's narrow reading of the statute and reversed on Friday.
"Due to the plain meaning of 'obtain' coupled with Congress's intent that the statute have broad reach, we hold that the statute encompasses the act of taking money from the government via false statements and causing it to be disbursed to others," Tallman wrote.
Ezeta is still listed on the College of Southern Nevada's website as a professor and counselor in the schools of Business, Hospitality and Public Service.
Southern Nevada spokeswoman K.C. Brekken confirmed that the college still employs Ezeta. Though the college does not comment on personnel issues, it "takes proper management and disbursement of financial aid funds very seriously," Brekken said.
Assistant Federal Public Defender Brenda Weksler represented Ezeta. She did not immediately return a request for comment on Friday.