The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has arrested the owner of a Hialeah day care center on charges that she stole money from a voucher-like scholarship program for low-income students. She’s the fifth South Florida person arrested on similar charges in the last three years, although most of the cases were unrelated.
According to a press release, Lissette Orta, 47, of Miramar, was booked in Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center on Wednesday on charges of grand theft and organized scheme to defraud Step Up for Students. That organization administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which grants tuition money to low-income students to attend a participating private school.
FDLE charges that Orta submitted fraudulent applications on the behalf of students at Kids Palace Day Care in Hialeah, which she owned. The applications contained documents stating that the students were attending full-time courses of study to receive $130,249 in scholarship funds during the 2016-17 school year.
The allegations were made in October 2017. State records show Kids Palace Day Care was voluntarily dissolved that same month. FDLE said its investigation also found that Orta instructed other individuals on how to defraud Florida scholarship programs.
Orta remained in jail Thursday on a $100,000 bond and could not be reached for comment.
Step Up for Students spokesman Patrick Gibbons said Kids Palace Day Care served students from pre-kindergarten to second grade. It accepted the Florida Tax Credit scholarship as well as the McKay scholarship for students with special needs.
He said Step Up was subpoenaed in 2017 by the circuit court in Miami-Dade for information on 46 students enrolled at the school between 2015 and 2017. Gibbons said he did not know how the day care was flagged, but said that Step Up has a compliance team that investigates complaints and irregularities.
“Stealing money from low-income kids is just not acceptable,” he said.
A Miami-Dade County employee was arrested in March 2016 after he told investigators that an administrator at his daughter’s school taught him how to cheat the system, according to a police affidavit. Police said Antonio Linen admitted during questioning that he lied on documents and said his 78-year-old mother was his daughter’s legal guardian in order to obtain $3,954 in tuition payments for his daughter’s education at a Lincoln-Martí school in Homestead.
In May 2016, FDLE also found that Andrea Velandia, owner of World of Learning Academy in Broward County, was receiving scholarships through Step Up for students who weren’t enrolled at the school. She was arrested in February 2017 on a grand theft charge. Another employee of Velandia’s school, Silke Angulo, was also arrested on one count of grand theft a month later.
FDLE also arrested in April 2017 Corey Lamont Alston of Broward County, who was alleged to have defunded the Gardiner Scholarship Program, another voucher-like program for students with special needs, which is also administered by Step Up. Officials said Alston oversaw the filing of fraudulent applications totaling $559,645 in scholarship funding at Urban Academy and subsidiary schools. He was charged with grand theft and organized scheme to defraud.