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Published in Print: May 17, 2000, as Federal Contractor Pleads Guilty To Theft, Conspiracy

Federal Contractor Pleads Guilty To Theft, Conspiracy

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Six Department of Education employees have been suspended indefinitely without pay in connection with a recently uncovered scheme that allegedly defrauded the agency of more than $1 million, the Department of Justice announced last week.

A seventh employee is on administrative leave and will be suspended at the end of the month. A Justice Department spokesman said the investigation could extend to other employees.

According to the Justice Department, the alleged scheme involved Robert J. Sweeney, a Bell Atlantic telephone company technician who had a contract with the Education Department to help install phone systems. Mr. Sweeney pleaded guilty before a federal judge here last week to one count of conspiracy and one count of theft of government property.

Beginning in 1997, according to the Justice Department, Mr. Sweeney began receiving orders from the woman who oversaw his contract, a telecommunications specialist in the Education Department's office of the chief information officer, to obtain items for her personal use.

Mr. Sweeney took items such as telephones and answering machines from a Bell Atlantic warehouse and brought them to the woman, who the Justice Department says distributed the equipment to her friends and family. The Education Department was charged for the items and paid for them.

Eventually, according the Justice Department, the telecommunications specialist began requesting more expensive items, such as a 61-inch television set, computers and printers, digital cameras, and more than 100 cordless phones, among other devices.

The Education Department's tab for the items is said to have totaled more than $300,000 over a three-year period that ended last December.

Agents from the FBI and the Education Department inspector general's office began searching for the items in December and have recovered most of the stolen goods, according to the Justice Department.

Mr. Sweeney also ran numerous personal errands for the telecommunications specialist, such as taking family members to doctors' appointments and picking up her granddaughter from school, according the Justice Department. The telecommunications specialist allegedly allowed and encouraged Mr. Sweeney and another technician to claim overtime pay for hours they did not work, which the Justice Department estimated at $634,000.

Other Abuses?

Officials from both the Education and Justice departments refused to name the employees or comment on details of the case.

"We are going to continue working closely with the U.S. attorneys to ensure that this case is fully investigated," said Erica Lepping, the spokeswoman for Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the Michigan Republican who chairs the House Subcommittee on Education Oversight and Investigations, said last week that he had received tips of similar abuses at the agency and plans to hold hearings on them.

"This scheme may only be the tip of the iceberg," Mr. Hoekstra, an outspoken critic of the department, said in a written statement. "We have received several tips from people within the department about other examples of fraud, waste, and abuse, and we will continue to bring these examples to light as we find them."

As part of his guilty plea, Mr. Sweeney faces up to 15 years in prison and a $500,000 fine. He is cooperating with government lawyers, said Channing Phillips, a spokesman for the Justice Department.

Vol. 19, Issue 36, Page 30

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