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Police recorded student-tutor conversation in Newport cheating scandal

Police recorded student-tutor conversation in Newport Beach grade changing scandal

A private tutor accused of hacking into a Newport Beach high school’s computer system to boost student grades freely discussed the alleged scheme with an involved student during a phone call that was recorded by police, according to school documents.

During the recorded conversation, Timothy Lance Lai, 29, allegedly implicated himself in the cheating scheme and identified students who were involved in the scandal, the documents show.

A hearing is scheduled Friday that could determine whether the recording would be allowed as evidence in Lai’s trial. The former tutor — who vanished when the cheating scandal exploded in 2013 and then was arrested last year at Los Angeles International Airport after returning from South Korea — is facing burglary and computer fraud charges. He faces a potential prison sentence of more than five years in prison.

The conversation between Lai and the student was detailed in an addendum to an official statement the student submitted by email on Dec. 27, 2013, to the Newport-Mesa Unified School District and was obtained this week by the Daily Pilot through the California Public Records Act.

"I agreed to go to the Newport Beach Police Department to place a tape-recorded telephone call to Mr. Lai while officers listened in," the student wrote. "During that call, I asked all of the questions suggested by the detectives, and it resulted in Mr. Lai admitting to doing everything that I had said he did."

Newport police and prosecutors would not discuss whether they believed the conversation confirmed Lai's involvement in the plot to boost grades at Corona del Mar High School.

However, Newport Beach police Officer David Syvock wrote in a affidavit that he was present in the interview room during the monitored conversation and that he believes Lai implicated himself.

"Lai also identified other CdM High students who were involved in the scheme as he told [the student] that they were [in trouble]," Syvock wrote, according to an affidavit attached to a warrant to search Lai's former Irvine home.

Lai’s attorney, Donald Rubright, declined to comment on specifics of the case, other than saying, "I think everyone, including my client, would like this to be over with."

The tutor allegedly provided students with key loggers — devices that capture keystrokes — to place on their teachers' computers in an effort to obtain passwords and change grades and access exams.

In June 2013, a teacher discovered that student grades had been changed and contacted school administrators. The district and police launched an investigation but couldn't identify the tutor.

That December, school officials discovered that a key logger had been placed on a teacher's computer and grades had been altered. CdM administrators obtained Lai's name through subsequent student interviews.

The main goal of the students involved, self-dubbed "The Bakers," was to "cupcake" teachers, meaning they would round up grades in the district's database or benefit from having tests or questions available to them by gaining access to their instructors' email accounts, according to a written statement by Corona del Mar Assistant Principal Tim Tolzda.

Eleven students were expelled in the aftermath of the scandal. Student involvement ranged from having knowledge of the cheating, receiving test questions in advance and key logging, officials have said.

"At this point, this is a matter for the courts," said Newport-Mesa spokeswoman Laura Boss.

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