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3 Face Charges in Scheme to Alter USC Grades for Pay

Times Staff Writer

A former USC employee and two former students are facing criminal charges for their part in a scheme to alter the grades of as many as 42 students through university computers, the district attorney’s office announced Thursday.

Two of the men have surrendered to authorities, and the third is a fugitive, a prosecutor said. The three are accused of changing student grades via university computers in exchange for cash.

Darryl Gillard, a 27-year-old Los Angeles resident, took payoffs ranging from $500 to $2,000 to illicitly improve students’ grades while working in the university’s Registration and Records Office, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Stephen Plafker. Charged with seven counts of illegal computer access, Gillard is free on $20,000 bail awaiting a preliminary hearing May 12.

The two former students acted as middlemen between Gillard and other students, the prosecutor said. Mehrdad Amini, 28, of Beverly Hills is jailed in lieu of $100,000 bail, facing charges of five counts of illegal computer access as well as federal cocaine possession charges. Plafker argued for the high bail on Amini, an Iranian national, because “he doesn’t have sufficient roots in the community to keep him here.”

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Still being sought is Manuel Roberts, a 23-year-old Los Angeles resident facing one count of illegal computer access.

A second former USC employee was “a minor player” in the scheme, Plafker said. However, the district attorney’s office decided against filing charges against her, in part because she had been “cooperative” in the investigation. Plafker declined to release her name.

The maximum penalty for a single count of illegal computer access is three years in state prison, Plafker said. No other charges are expected to be filed, he said.

Suspicions of computer-assisted grade-tampering first surfaced in March, 1984, when an academic adviser took a dubious view of one student’s transcript. “The record seemed improbable,” recalled Sylvia Manning, vice provost for undergraduate studies.

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An ensuing investigation was widened after the federal Drug Enforcement Administration in Louisville, Ky., arrested Amini and two other men on cocaine charges. The administration told Los Angeles authorities that agents had uncovered information indicating that phony USC degrees, backed up by computer-manufactured transcripts, were being sold for as much as $25,000.

Those suspicions proved to be unfounded, Manning said Thursday. “We believe we have scotched that one completely. There were no degrees.”

Amini, in an interview with The Times early last year, said he heard rumors on campus that grades and degrees could be bought, but did not participate in the scheme. He also claimed he was “set up” on the drug charges by a person who claimed to be a friend.

The campus probe ultimately led to confidential administrative hearings last year for 42 students suspected of having their grades altered between May, 1983, and May, 1984. Some students had one altered grade, others as many as 10.

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Those hearings have thus far resulted in the expulsion of 12 students and the suspension of seven, Manning said. The academic records of 14 students have been placed on “permanent hold” after they failed to respond to requests to attend the administrative hearings.

A determination of insufficient evidence was made in five cases. The hearings of two students are in process, and another two are in appeals, Manning said.

Gillard gained access to the computers that enabled him to scan and alter student records, investigators said. USC officials said that “literally thousands” of legitimate grade changes occur each semester.

Since the tampering took place, “we have built an elaborate tracking system” in the records computers, Manning said. “We have built every known safeguard into that system while making it still accessible to a few key people.”

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