ATLANTA — The former president of Morris Brown College pleaded guilty Monday to embezzling federal funds that were intended to cover student tuition.

Dolores Cross, 69, who was president of the 125-year-old college from November 1998 until February 2002, entered the plea in front of U.S. District Judge Julie Carnes at a morning hearing.

Monday’s plea agreement dismisses 27 other counts Cross was facing in connection with the case. Had she gone to trial on the single count to which she pleaded guilty, Cross could have faced up to five years in prison, three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine.

Instead, prosecutors are asking that Cross receive a sentence of 10 to 16 months in prison. Her attorneys indicted in court that they would seek a lesser sentence of zero to six months because of an undisclosed medical condition.

The prosecution and defense agreed she will pay $11,000 in restitution if it is imposed by the judge.

Cross’ trial had been expected to begin Monday.

Speaking after the hour-long hearing, Cross’ attorney, Drew Findling said the former president felt relief for the Morris Brown community.

“She hopes ending this prosecution will assist Morris Brown in regaining its accreditation,” Findling said. “Dr. Cross hoped that her presidency would improve the school’s academic standing and build on the college’s tradition. She is proud of the progress the college made during her presidency.”

Morris Brown College is one of six institutions of higher learning that comprise the cluster of historically black colleges known as the Atlanta University Center. Lesser known than sibling schools Morehouse and Spelman colleges, Morris Brown was founded by former slaves affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1881.

For more than a century, the college took many students from poor backgrounds — large numbers of whom returned to their hometowns as teachers.

Findling said Cross has admitted that she “should have prevented the misapplication of federal funds which was occurring in the financial aid office.” He declined to elaborate on her medical condition.

Federal prosecutor Lynn Adam said the government does not believe Cross’ medical condition is serious enough to warrant a reduced sentence, based on its latest review of her medical records. Adam said fewer than 10 victims were affected by Cross’ actions under the count to which she pleaded guilty.

“They should be able to straighten this out with the Department of Education,” Adam said. “Their credit records should be cleared.”

The case has been a blemish on Cross’ lengthy career in higher education, which included experience in student financial aid. Prior to joining Morris Brown, she was president of Chicago State University. Cross testified Monday she holds a doctorate degree from the University of Michigan.

Cross was originally indicted with Parvesh Singh, former director of financial aid and enrollment services for Morris Brown College. Singh pleaded guilty last week to one count of theft of federal financial aid funds, admitting to stealing tens of thousands of dollars from unwitting students and the government.

The two first worked together in college administration during the 1980s. Cross hired Singh as financial aid director at Chicago State in 1995. Singh was still employed there when Cross hired him as a financial aid consultant at Morris Brown in 1998; the following year, he was hired as director of financial aid and director of enrollment services.

As part of the plea agreement, Singh, 64, had been expected to testify against Cross.

He pleaded guilty to fraudulently obtaining more than $92,000 using the names of students who did not the meet the requirements for full-time enrollment or never attended classes.

Under a December 2004 federal indictment, Singh faced 34 counts of fraud. The remaining counts will be dismissed as part of the agreement. According to a December 2004 indictment, Singh and Cross fraudulently obtained $3.4 million in federally insured student loans and Pell grants to cover in part a $3.3 million credit debt and school expenses.

Approximately $1 million of those funds have been repaid to the Department of Education, according to prosecutors.

Attorneys for Singh and Cross emphasized that neither defendant personally benefited from the stolen funds.

Although Morris Brown obtained the funds legally, it never should have kept the loan money for students who never showed up for classes or were enrolled less than half time, prosecutors said.

Most of the ineligible students did not know the loans had been applied for in their names, or that they would be expected to repay, court documents claim. Cross and Singh also hid the fraud from the school’s board of trustees, and Morris Brown workers have helped with the investigation, authorities said.

Under Cross, the college received between $15 million and $25 million a year in financial aid. Nine of 10 students at the school received some form of financial assistance. She resigned in February 2002 when allegations of mismanagement and fraud surfaced and Morris Brown lost its accreditation, which it has yet to regain.

At one point in recent years, enrollment plunged from 2,000 students to as low as 80.


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