School vouchers: AZ grand jury indicts 5 for alleged fraud

Five people have been indicted by a grand jury for allegedly engaging in fraud in connection to the state's Empower Scholarship Accounts program, Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes announced.

Dolores Lashay Sweet, Dorrian Lamarr Jones, Jennifer Lopez, Jadakah Celeste Johnson, and Raymond Lamont Johnson, Jr. are accused of fraud, conspiracy, computer tampering, illegally conducting an enterprise, money laundering and forgery.

"Defendants approved ESA applications for minor students, both real and fictitious, and admitted them into the program by using false, forged or fraudulent documentation (i.e. fake birth certificates, and falsified special education evaluations)," Mayes' office said in a news release. "They then awarded those students' accounts ESA funds, and approved expenses for reimbursement or funds for distribution on behalf of those students for their own benefit. The indictments filed this week in Maricopa County Superior Court alleges that the goal of the conspiracy was for defendants to obtain funds and/or property from the ESA program for personal use."

"To put it simply, they created ghost children with forged birth certificates, children that didn’t exist, and gave them fake disability diagnoses that would make them eligible for larger funding amounts," said AG Mayes, during a news conference on Feb. 29.

Sweet, Jones and Lopez are ex-employees of the Arizona Department of Education. Jadakah and Raymond Johnson are Sweet's children. The five are accused of fraudulently taking $600,000.

AG Mayes said the investigation began in August 2023. She characterized their spending of the reported $600,000 as ‘luxury purchases.’

The question of who alerted whom to the behavior is a matter of dispute between AG Hayes, a Democrat, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, a Republican. However, AG Hayes' announcement has sparked another political fight over the state’s controversial ESA program.

Supporters of the program say it gives parents more choices in individualizing their child’s education, using it to pay for options like private school or tutoring. Opponents, meanwhile, say it takes away money from the state’s already underfunded public schools.

AG Mayes has previously shared skepticism of how taxpayer funds were being spent on ESAs, and on Feb. 29, she claimed the program is prime for fraud. Superintendent Horne, meanwhile, pointed out that he hired an auditor and full-time investigator to identify and root out the issues. Horne also says his officer has sent over seven additional incidents of suspected fraud to the Attorney General's Office, and that additional steps will be taken.