A Los Angeles minister who counseled college-bound students on ways to defraud the federal student aid program was sentenced Monday to three years and five months in federal prison.
The Rev. Ozell Clifford Brazil was convicted earlier this year in a jury trial in which prosecutors accused him of advising students to falsely claim they were orphans or came from broken homes so they could qualify for federal grants and loans.
Brazil, 53, founded and ran the Los Angeles Community Outreach Program, which conducted seminars at Loyola Marymount University and the First AME and Bethel AME churches to help minority high school students get into college.
In private meetings, however, Brazil advised students and their parents to lie about their financial and domestic circumstances to qualify for financial aid. Some of those same students testified at his trial. The jury also found that Brazil fabricated stories about students in letters he sent to college aid officers on his organization's letterhead.
Brazil did not take the stand during the trial, but his lawyer argued that he might have been given erroneous or misleading information by the students and parents he counseled. That claim was seriously undercut, however, when prosecutors played a tape from a secretly recorded meeting Brazil had with two federal agents posing as father and daughter.
When the father disclosed that his family's adjusted gross income exceeded $80,000, Brazil said, "I can get you a good tax man who can rewrite some of your W2s." As an alternative, the minister suggested telling college aid officials that the girl's parents were separated and that her mother was her sole means of support. "We have to put you out of the picture," he told the agent posing as the father.
In court Monday, Brazil appealed for leniency, telling U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson, "I may have made a mistake, but I was not in it for the money."
Brazil, who said he suffers from a heart condition, asked to be placed on probation and expressed fear about being "locked up like a caged animal."
Although the U.S. attorney's office had asked for a term of 51 to 63 months, Wilson sentenced Brazil to 41 months behind bars and ordered him to pay $716,000 in restitution to the government.
"Even if he had a benign motivation, it's still a crime," the judge told Brazil's defense attorney, Edward M. Robinson.
After sentencing, an angry and distraught Brazil stormed out of the courtroom shouting that he was the victim of a government conspiracy.
Brazil, who is African American, confronted Assistant U.S. Atty. David Vaughn, who is white, in the hallway and accused him of being "a racist pig." Vaughn did not respond.
Brazil, who is free on bond, has 30 days to surrender to authorities. His attorney said an appeal would be filed.