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Test-taking tempest

In a bizarre case of possible test-tampering, federal prosecutors allege that a top state education department official in South Carolina conspired to switch the results of two General Educational Development exams to help a magistrate who had never earned a high school diploma keep his position. A grand jury indictment from August charges that Stephon Edwards, a senior executive assistant at the department, carried out the scheme with John E. Brown, an employee of the state comptroller general's office.

The indictment says Mr. Brown took the GED test at the same place and time in 1994 as Ernest White, who was appointed the magistrate for Jasper County that year. Mr. White's position required a high school diploma or the equivalent. Later, the indictment says, Mr. Edwards and an unnamed other person went to the GED testing office in Columbia, the state capital, "and switched and altered the test examinations of Ernest White and John Brown."

State Superintendent Barbara Stock Nielsen ordered an investigation following concerns of possible tampering. Mr. Edwards and Mr. Brown are to be tried this week in the U.S. District Court in Columbia on mail-fraud charges in connection with the case. Mr. White, who resigned from his magistrate's position, is not being prosecuted.

According to a recently unsealed prosecutors' documents, Mr. Edwards claimed that Superintendent Nielsen's husband was involved in the scheme. The same documents indicate, however, that Mr. Edwards failed polygraph tests regarding the allegation, and prosecutors have not implicated either the superintendent or her husband in the scheme.

Others have questioned whether the trial was timed to coincide with the state superintendent's election. Ms. Nielsen, a Republican, has not said if she will seek re-election next November. "You try to raise any kind of dust you can, and that's what [the defense] has done," said education department lawyer Ashley Abel. The superintendent "had no involvement in this whatsoever, and in fact was the one who's tried to get this prosecuted for the past three years."

Defense attorneys declined to detail their arguments prior to the trial, but Nathaniel Roberson, who represents Mr. Brown, said he believes prosecutors will have a hard time proving their case.

--JEFF ARCHER [email protected]

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