Tutor in Newport Beach cheating scandal pleads guilty, goes to jail

The cheating scandal at Corona del Mar High School stunned the community.

The cheating scandal at Corona del Mar High School stunned the community.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The Irvine tutor who helped a group of high-achieving Newport Beach students hack into their teacher’s computer to change grades and steal tests pleaded guilty Tuesday and was immediately sentenced to one year in jail and five years probation.

Timothy Lance Lai pleaded guilty in Orange County Superior Court to 20 felony counts of computer access and fraud and one felony count of commercial burglary for his involvement in the cheating scheme.

The 29-year-old originally faced a possible sentence of up to 16 years.

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“It’s beyond my understanding how you thought you could get away with this,” Judge Robert Fitzgerald told Lai before issuing his sentence. “The truth always comes out.”

Lai sat next to his lawyer in silence — his gaze sometimes cast downward — as Fitzgerald reprimanded him

“I profoundly apologize for the trouble I’ve caused in the past,” Lai said. “I’m ready to make amends. … I’m really, truly sorry.”

Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Brock Zimmon contended that the amount of jail time wasn’t severe enough, considering the effect the crime had on Corona de Mar High School. Zimmon said his offer was three years in jail, which Lai did not accept.

“This affected every student at the school,” Zimmon said. “It affected the value of the degree.”

Prosecutors believe Lai broke into the Newport Beach high school in 2013 to place a keylogging device, which tracks keystrokes, on the back of a teacher’s computer to steal logins and passwords.

Using the recorded information, Lai accessed the school’s network and changed students’ grades 19 times between Jan. 25 and June 14, 2013, according to the Orange County district attorney’s office.

The cheating came to light in June that year after a teacher discovered that students’ grades had been altered. Administrators obtained Lai’s name through student interviews, according to court records. But Lai fled to South Korea before authorities could contact him, authorities said.

Officers arrested Lai 10 months later at Los Angeles International Airport as he was returning to the United States. During his arrest, officers found a USB device containing evidence that implicated Lai in the cheating scheme, Zimmon said.

He said Lai had tried to destroy the evidence by reformatting the USB, but police were able to extract the data. Zimmon did not disclose exactly what was on the device.

Principal Kathy Scott read a statement to the court before Lai was sentenced Tuesday, calling attention to the parents and students who were harmed by the scandal.

“Lives were shaken when they found out the person they trusted to help their student to improve academically undermined them and betrayed them by his leadership role in the cheating scandal,” she said.

She said the entire community was disrupted by the media attention resulting from the scandal.

“This damaged the academic integrity of CdM and devalued the perception of the CdM diploma,” she said.