ARIZONA NEWS

Former Arizona education employees accused of stealing money from ESA program

Feb 29, 2024, 1:48 PM | Updated: 3:14 pm

Three former Arizona Department of Education employees are accused of obtaining funds from the stat...

Three former Arizona Department of Education employees are accused of obtaining funds from the state's school voucher program for personal use. (Pexels Photo)

(Pexels Photo)

PHOENIX — Three former Arizona Department of Education employees are accused of obtaining funds from the state’s school voucher program for personal use, authorities announced Thursday.

The employees — Dolores Lashay Sweet, Dorrian Lamarr Jones and Jennifer Lopez — are said to have used fake documentation, including birth certificates and special education evaluations, to allow them to receive funding from the program for their own benefit, according to court documents.

Jadakah Celeste Johnson and Raymond Lamont Johnson Jr., the adult children of Sweet, are accused of being used as the vessels for the former education employees to distribute the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program money.

The alleged misconduct, totaling more than $600,000, happened between October 2021 and November 2023.

The suspects were indicted on around 40 counts of conspiracy, illegally conducting an enterprise, computer tampering, money laundering, and fraudulent schemes and artifices.

“There will be a lot more to this investigation and how deep this goes,” Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes said Thursday during a press conference.

Mayes criticizes ‘easy to target’ Arizona ESA program

Mayes, a Democrat, said that the ESA program is ripe for misconduct because it lacks proper overnight.

Gov. Katie Hobbs echoed Mayes’ sentiments at the start of the year, unveiling a plan for the program that would require some checks in order for families to receive its funding.

“My overarching concern is that this program is easy to target for fraud,” Mayes said. “The Legislature has never appropriated the administration of this program and the lack of controls, regulation and appropriate oversight make the voucher ESA program a target for fraudsters as we’ve seen.”

The case involving the former education employees began under former Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman and continued under current schools chief Tom Horne.

Mayes said it wasn’t the Department of Education that alerted authorities of the alleged fraud but rather a credit union that noticed large cash withdrawals. Horne said it was his department that alerted authorities of the potential misconduct.

“This is not about school choice or any other ideological choice about education,” Mayes said. “It’s about a program that is an easy target for criminals because it’s a large pot of money without enough oversight.”

The ESA program serves more than 75,000 Arizona students as of Monday.

The program, which was created in 2011, was limited to schoolchildren with disabilities or who met other specific criteria until 2022, when the Legislature and then-Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, opened it up to all Arizona students.

“We do not know how deep this fraud goes but we will get to the bottom of it,” Mayes said.

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Former Arizona education employees accused of stealing money from ESA program