University administrator steals $1.5M in tuition for gambling, ‘lavish’ trips, feds say

A University of California San Francisco administrator stole $1.5 million in tuition by deceiving nursing school students into paying her instead of the school, federal prosecutors said.

Sandra Eileen Le “did not do so out of necessity” as she “and her husband had stable jobs,” court documents say.

For more than five years, Le diverted students’ tuition checks into her own bank accounts while she was the academic program officer for UCSF School of Nursing’s post-master’s and special studies certificate programs, according to prosecutors.

She told students to make the checks payable to her, as well as to a Los Angeles merchandiser of “jewelry, high-end purses and other accessories” from which she made purchases, court documents say.

Le spent the tuition that should’ve gone to UCSF on online gambling, “lavish” trips, jewelry, purses and home remodeling, court documents say.

The scheme persisted for years, partly because Le gained students’ trust “through cultivating close relationships with them, such as by getting to know them and their families,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memo.

Now, Le, a 55-year-old San Francisco resident, has been sentenced to one year and eight months in prison on three counts of wire fraud, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California announced in a Feb. 16 news release.

She’s also been ordered to pay $1,536,089.64 in restitution, the attorney’s office said.

Le’s defense attorney, Julia Mezhinsky Jayne, declined to offer a comment to McClatchy News on Feb. 20 and instead referenced comments she made in a sentencing memo she submitted on Le’s behalf.

In the memo, Jayne wrote Le diverted student funds “when she was depressed, abusing drugs and alcohol, in the throes of a mental health breakdown, and when she was not sharing her experience with anyone.”

“Despite maintaining an illusion of control, she was, in fact, spiraling into the depths of destructive behavior,” Jayne said. “After work, she consumed a variety of ‘designer’ or party drugs, she gambled away all of her savings, and she supported these bad habits by stealing from her employer and misleading students.”

McClatchy News contacted UCSF for comment Feb. 20 and didn’t receive an immediate response.

A ‘lack of memory’ when confronted by police

Le’s scheme surfaced in May 2019 after UCSF began probing why the nursing school’s post-master’s program was missing tuition payments, according to prosecutors.

After the school asked April 29, 2019, for Le’s consent to obtain her “work-related data,” she “went home sick” and never came back to work, the sentencing memo filed by prosecutors says.

Days later, a student handed a nearly $9,000 check to a person who was filling in for Le, given her absence, that was written out to the Los Angeles merchandiser from which Le had purchased items, according to the sentencing memo.

When asked, the student said “that is how Ms. Le had instructed the tuition payment to be made,” the sentencing memo says.

At the time, this student had attended nine semesters that were worth nearly $60,000 in tuition, according to prosecutors.

However, UCSF never received the student’s tuition money, prosecutors said.

Afterward, the UCSF police department began investigating Le, who is accused of pretending to have a “a lack of memory” when detectives confronted her, according to the sentencing memo.

Following interviews with 88 students, the detectives learned Le diverted nearly $870,000 in tuition payments before the FBI took over the investigation in summer 2020, the sentencing memo says.

Then the FBI learned of additional diverted funds, according to prosecutors.

“Worst of all, she apparently has done nothing to save for restitution during the 2½ years this case has been pending,” prosecutors wrote in their sentencing memo.

Meanwhile, Jayne wrote in her sentencing memo that Le “is deeply remorseful at how low she sank in those years.”

Ultimately, the students who officials say were duped into paying their tuition to Le were not penalized because USCF gave them “full credit and took on the financial loss,” according to prosecutors.

Le must surrender on or before May 10 to start serving her prison sentence, according to the attorney’s office.

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