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Whose Academic Advantage? USA Asks

MANHATTAN (CN) - A tutoring agency bilked taxpayers of $14 million by forging student signatures on attendance sheets and falsifying other documents, federal prosecutors say.

The United States of America sued The Academic Advantage and nine of its former employees and directors, in Federal Court.

Academic Advantage billed the federal government for tutoring services in underperforming schools that it never provided for the 2010-12 school years, according to the 46-page lawsuit, with 10 more pages of exhibits.

"Academic Advantage routinely submitted false certifications to the NYC DOE [New York City Department of Education] that inflated the attendance for its SES [Supplemental Education Services] tutoring classes," the complaint states. Many of the Academic Advantage employees who were responsible for the day-to-day operations of Academic Advantage's SES program forged student signatures on Academic Advantage's daily student attendance sheet to make it appear that more students had attended Academic Advantage's SES tutoring classes than had, in fact, attended."

Higher-ranking employees instructed subordinates to forge signatures, and in some cases, "up to approximately 45 signatures" were forged on a daily basis, Uncle Sam says.

"To inflate Academic Advantage's daily student attendance figures, Site Managers and Program Aides also instructed students to sign daily student attendance sheets for SES tutoring classes that the Site Managers and Program Aides knew the students either had not attended or would not be attending," according to the complaint.

Site managers were threatened with termination if they refused to comply with orders to falsify the attendance records, the government says.

Whether due to arrogance or ineptitude, the defendants allegedly did a poor job of covering their tracks. "There are numerous daily student attendance sheets where the same students' alleged signatures change significantly in appearance from one tutoring session to another, including instances where sloppy handwriting all of a sudden becomes neat, distinctive ways of writing certain letters are not repeated, and students all of a sudden spell their names incorrectly," the complaint states.

It continues: "Moreover, during the covered period, there were more than 5,000 instances where Academic Advantage billed and was paid by the NYC DOE for providing after-school tutoring services to particular students at their schools on days when those students were absent from school."

Former employees named as defendants include Edwin Guzman, Luz Mercedes, Arlette Hernandez, Kristin Joyner, Nilsa Dalmasi, Rayvon Jones, Alicia McKay, Teresa Osorio and Ayesha Young.

According to the complaint, Guzman, Mercedes, Jones, Dalmasi, Osorio and Young were involved in a similar scheme at the Princeton Review (nka Education Holdings 1 Inc.), another New York City tutoring agency.

Princeton Review was accused of, and eventually admitted to, falsifying attendance documents from 2006 through 2010, according to the complaint.

Then the cheating virus spread to New York, according to the complaint: "After absorbing a substantial portion of Princeton Review's former SES workforce, Academic Advantage's billings to the NYC DOE skyrocketed. ... For the 2008/2009 and 2009/2010 academic years, Academic Advantage billed and was paid by the NYC DOE approximately $680,000 and $1.2 million, respectively. By contrast, for the 2010/2011 and 2011/2012 academic years, Academic Advantage billed and was paid approximately $4.5 million and $9.5 million, respectively."

Uncle Sam seeks treble damages for violations of the False Claims Act and unjust enrichment.

Academic Advantage did not respond to requests for comment.

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