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Old 06-18-2011, 06:26 PM
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Default GRANT SCANDAL: Falsified application brings fraud conviction

GRANT SCANDAL: Falsified application brings fraud conviction
It seemed like such a good moment in 2007 -- the state awarded a $35 million grant to benefit before-and-after-school programs for some of Riverside County's neediest districts.
But in the end a multimillion-dollar check was returned to the state, the schools got nothing, and the woman who wrote the grant application was convicted of mail fraud, forgery and making false statements.
Jean Michele Cross, 59, of Paso Robles, was convicted June 7 and is scheduled to be sentenced in U.S. District Court in Riverside on Aug. 29. She faces a possible maximum of 35 years in prison.
The grant was under a federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, part of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. The California Department of Education administered the funds, which were supposed to have benefited up to 3,000 students in at least 17 schools and after-school programs. Cross, a professional grant writer, could have made as much as $5.2 million, according to prosecutors.
The western Riverside County school districts affected -- Nuview Union, Perris Elementary, Perris Union High and Val Verde Union -- had hoped to expand one-on-one academic programs for struggling students and enrichment programs that offer arts, dance and crafts.
According to court documents, Cross contacted potential recipients, proposed the grant and then wrote the 104-page application on behalf of the Indio Youth Task Force, which was to have been the local lead agency.
The YMCA of Riverside City and County was to have managed the western county grant distribution. The YMCA, in anticipation of the grant, did spend about $260,000 on after-school programs in advance of receiving the money.
The government said Cross, who owns and operates Cross Resources Inc. in Paso Robles, submitted an application that included forged signatures, statements that school officials said they never made, and pasted-in results of surveys conducted years earlier for other schools.
For instance, in a 2002 grant application for the Alvord Unified School District, Cross reported survey findings that 63 percent of responding parents commuted 1.5 hours each way to work, and 41 percent wanted fitness and recreation activities. That survey was undertaken to assess child care needs, among other items.
Those same figures appeared in the 2007 application from the Indio Youth Task Force, court documents show. One difference: The phrase "oftentimes on a bus" was added to the parental commute figures for the Indio request.
"School officials testified they were unaware of any surveys conducted for this grant, and the survey results match up with prior results from different districts that were not applying for this grant," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jerry A. Behnke, one of the prosecutors in the case.
Cross' attorney, Joel R. Isaacson of Los Angeles, said his client is an experienced grant writer who has worked for many school districts, including several in the Inland area.
"Her position is that she was acting in good faith, didn't have any criminal intent, and felt she was doing a lawful and right thing to benefit the poor children of the community," he said.
He said school administrators had sent her faxes of signatures that she believed to be valid for the application.
But prosecutors said in court documents that some signatures were forged. In one instance, Nuview Unified School District Superintendent Jay Hoffman's signature is "Jay N. Hoffman," but on the application it is "Jay D. Hoffman."
Court documents said Cross admitted she had "windowed" faxed signatures by holding them up to a light and tracing them on the application. The state required original signatures, she explained.
The conviction has disqualified Cross from applying for grants, Isaacson said. "It has essentially shut down her business."
Prosecutors said Cross never specified in the application how much of the money she would get if the grant succeeded and all of its goals were met.
The terms -- 15 percent of the $35 million grant, or potentially $5.2 million -- were spelled out in a contract with an official of the Indio Youth Task Force but not included in the document submitted for the grant.
Isaacson said the money Cross might have received ultimately depended on how many students participated in the program.
One of the school districts that would have benefited from the grant -- Desert Sands Unified in the Coachella Valley -- blew the whistle after officials reviewed the application that Cross had submitted to the California Department of Education.
The district said in its letter that the official version "materially differed" from an earlier copy it was shown.
Desert Sands had the most to gain -- $19 million over the five years of the grant -- but told the state in April 2008 that it could not take the money.
"The District realized that signatures of its former Superintendent and all of its site administrators were forged," according to a letter the district sent to the state. "The District also realized that the application contained false and misleading information."
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