Originally created 08/14/97

Investigators looking at Pell Grant fraud by college athletes



WASHINGTON (AP) - The Education Department is auditing university records for possible abuse of federal financial aid to support college athletes.

Assistant Inspector General Dianne Van Riper said Wednesday agents have begun a closer look at grants, work-study and other financial aid. She would not say which universities, or how many, were being examined.

She also confirmed a federal grand jury is separately investigating aid practices at a university, but she gave no details.

ESPN reported Tuesday night that players at 22 universities - almost all football powers - have been pinpointed by investigators. Mississippi State was one of the campuses visited Tuesday, according to The Clarion-Ledger newspaper in Jackson.

The decision to pursue a broader investigation follows information uncovered during a widely publicized investigation at the University of Miami, and from other sources.

The Miami investigation led to the conviction of Anthony Russell, a former academic adviser. Russell was sentenced to three years in 1994 for helping athletes, mostly football players, get the federal aid fraudulently.

"It was indicated during that investigation that other schools may have been doing similar things," said Van Riper, who gave no indication how long the current investigation would take.

The department also was told by the General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, about problems with Pell Grants, which help students from poor families pay for college.

"We were also getting some of these smaller isolated allegations coming in about other schools, which caused us to believe we ought to take a closer look," Van Riper said. The larger investigation has been under way for about two years, but only now have agents begun collecting records at institutions.

No cases have been referred to federal prosecutors as a result of this broader look.

Although the focus is on football, other sports are involved.

Van Riper said investigators were looking at whether information on Pell Grant applications was true and whether the students "who are supposed to be eligible are the ones who got the money."

If students get a grant, other forms of aid may have to be lowered. Many athletes get scholarships in addition to the grants.

About 3.7 million people received the grants of up to $2,700 last year, but the average award is $1,700. The 1997 budget is $6 billion.

The investigators are also looking at work-study, which helps finance part-time jobs for needy students.

At Mississippi State, four federal officials requested financial-aid files of all members of the football team after arriving Tuesday morning at the Starkville campus, an MSU vice president told The Clarion-Ledger.

"We will cooperate in their investigation to the fullest," Roy Ruby said. "We are confident the office has awarded the financial aid properly."