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Tampa college official, co-conspirator convicted of embezzling aid for students

The two are facing at least 20 years in federal prison for a scheme that cost local unnamed college hundreds of thousands of dollars.

  • By Louis Llovio
  • | 6:00 p.m. March 6, 2024
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
  • Tampa Bay-Lakeland
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A pair of Tampa residents are facing decades in federal prison after being convicted this week on multiple counts of wire fraud for embezzling $835,000 from an unidentified higher education institution.

The pair, Andrea Mitchell, 54, and Lester Best, 53, were found guilty Monday of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and 22 counts of wire fraud. Mitchell was also found guilty on two counts of two counts of aggravated identity theft.

According to a statement from the U.S. Department of Justice, they face 20 years in federal prison on each of the conspiracy and fraud counts. Mitchell’s additional convictions call for a two-year mandatory sentence for each count.

Online court records show Best’s sentencing is set for June 5. Mitchell is scheduled to be sentenced the following day, June 6.

According to a statement from the Justice Department and the grand jury indictment issued December 2022, here is what happened:

Mitchell started at the unnamed school in 2013. As part of her job, she was responsible for student billing and student refund management.

(The school was not named in the indictment or the statement and referred to it only as the “higher education institution” and saying it “awarded associate degrees, certificates and diplomas.”)

Prosecutors say that shortly after Mitchell started, she began to use personal information, including identification numbers, belonging to current and former students to create “false and fraudulent checks.”

Mitchell did this by accessing student sponsorship bank accounts set up by the school’s tuition management programs and the college savings programs to distribute funds to students when they needed money for tuition, books or other school necessities.

She would then create “illusory balances” to make it look as if the accounts had the funds to cover the checks she had written.

Once the checks were done, the names were then changed to match those of several co-conspirators whom Best had been recruited.

Best, according to the indictment, would then drive the others around to banks and ATMs to cash or deposit the checks and they “would and did give most or all of the fraud proceeds from the checks to Best.”

Best paid them from the money that had been collected.

The indictment listed 23 transactions ranging from $3,314.96 to $22,986 and prosecutors say the scheme cost the school $835,000.

This case was investigated by the Tampa Police Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the United States Secret Service. Assistant United States Attorney Candace Garcia Rich prosecuted the case. 

The fate of seven others who were indicted as co-conspirators was not immediately known.



Louis Llovio

Louis Llovio is the deputy managing editor at the Business Observer. Before going to work at the Observer, the longtime business writer worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Maryland Daily Record and for the Baltimore Sun Media Group. He lives in Tampa.

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