A New Jersey commercial diving school owner listed in the Women Divers Hall of Fame has been sentenced to 27 months in prison for defrauding the US government. She has also been fined $50,000, ordered to pay restitution of $1.1 million and will be placed under supervision for three years after her release.
Tamara “Tammy” Brown, 58, had pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud, which involves using telecoms or the Internet with intent to defraud. The president and chief executive officer of Divers Academy International, she had been accused of fraudulently obtaining funding from the US departments of education (DoE) and of veterans’ affairs (VA) for her school and its students.
US District Judge Joseph H Rodriguez heard the plea and imposed the sentence by video-conference yesterday (12 January), and the conviction was announced by New Jersey District Attorney Philip R Sellinger.
Divers Academy International, which instructed commercial divers and offered specialist courses in underwater welding and salvage techniques, required the approval of a recognised accreditation body to be eligible to receive higher education tuition funds from the DoE and VA, explained Sellinger. With more than 80% of students receiving DoE financial assistance, he said that the school could not afford to lose its accreditation.
Until 2012 the school was said to have been properly accredited, but when Brown applied to renew the accreditation in that year she submitted fraudulent information to the authority. She reported for example that 81-84% of students gained employment after graduating, but the employment rates were in fact closer to 50-60% – significantly lower than those required to maintain accreditation.
Brown also claimed that advisory board meetings required for accreditation were held, but the minutes of at least six of nine claimed meetings that she submitted with her application were said to have been “wholly fabricated”. Based on her claims, the school continued to receive regular DOE payments until early 2017.
The case was investigated by the FBI in co-operation with the defrauded government departments. Following the sentencing, divers who had been students at the school at the time were told that if they showed that they had been misled they could be eligible for “borrower defence”, which would allow some or all of their federal student loan debt to be discharged.
Brown bought Divers Academy International in 2006 from her father Captain William M Brown, who had founded it as Divers Academy of the Eastern Seaboard in 1977 to meet high demand for commercial divers. It moved to a custom-designed facility in Erial, New Jersey, including a training quarry, hyperbaric chamber, welding facilities and classrooms, and in 2013 she added a 90m mixed-gas deep-dive facility in Allentown, Pennsylvania, said to be the USA’s deepest dive-training quarry.
Brown, who was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame in 2000, had been a graduate of her father’s school in 1982. She became President of the Association of Commercial Diving Educators, and the hall of fame describes her as “one of the pioneers in developing commercial diving certification standards” and “recognised as a leader in the commercial diving industry”.