Columbia University exec charged in financial aid kickback scheme

People walk past the Alma Mater statue on the Columbia University campus on July 1, 2013 in New York City. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Mario Tama

A former financial aid director at Columbia University’s Teachers College and a Long Island woman were among four defendants charged in Manhattan federal court Thursday with fraud and bribery in a $350,000 kickback scheme involving phony graduate school financial grants.

The government said Melanie Williams-Bethea, 47, of Springfield Gardens, Queens, the aid director, approved millions in phony assistance over 10 years to friends Annice Kpana, 35, of Valley Stream, and two South Carolina women, dispensing thousands during years when they weren’t even attending classes.

Kpana, according to the criminal complaint, has been seeking a master’s degree since 2007 and has not taken classes since 2010, but for six years in which her cost of attendance was zero she got aid of $75,000 to $121,000, and altogether she got nearly $1 million in aid “facilitated or authorized” by Williams-Bethea.

The government also said the two vacationed together in the Caribbean, Hawaii and New Orleans.

A spokesman for Columbia said in a statement the school discovered “irregularities” in the spring, launched an internal investigation and referred the case to law enforcement authorities.

“We take the matter of fraud and the misappropriation of College funds very seriously and remain deeply distressed over the betrayal of trust,” the statement said.

Kpana faces up to 35 years in prison, and Williams-Bethea up to 40 years. Their lawyers did not comment.