A Fort Wayne woman on Monday pleaded guilty to wire fraud in federal court, joining a growing number of former employees of a local defense contractor to admit stealing from the company through a tuition assistance program.
Tia N. Russell, 39, pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud in U.S. District Court in Fort Wayne. She is the sixth former employee of BAE Systems to admit taking part in an alleged scheme that netted nearly $800,000 for 31 workers who signed up to take college classes, pocketed reimbursement money and never set foot in a classroom.
“I did not take these courses,” said Russell, who was an operations associate at the company until April 2016.
Five others charged in the case have agreed to enter guilty pleas.
Russell stole $11,880 through the program, which BAE changed in 2013 to allow for upfront payments.
Workers submitted tuition requests using software provided by BAE, a subsidiary of a British defense contractor with offices near Fort Wayne International Airport. The software was used to get required information including proof of attendance and a completion certificate, prosecutors have said.
The company was alerted to the scheme by an employee in 2016, and the FBI began an investigation shortly after, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stacey Speith said.
Russell faces up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, although plea agreements for her and other former employees call for paying back the money to BAE. A judge will decide whether to order them to spend time behind bars.
Prosecutors agreed to drop a second wire fraud charge against Russell as part of her agreement. A sentencing hearing has not been scheduled.
BAE lost about $767,500 through the program, according to court documents. Individual amounts range from $6,750 to $55,056.
A four-page, two-count indictment returned Feb. 28 charged Russell with submitting two requests for tuition reimbursement in August 2015. Speith said one count included requests for six classes at Indiana Tech worth more than $7,000, with the money later deposited in a bank account in Russell's name. She filed paperwork to plead guilty May 9.
Brian R. Dunbar, Robin C. Opper, David P. Rinderle Jr., Latonya D. Smith and Terrell D. Ward-Thomas also have pleaded guilty.