Special to the Opelika Observer
A press release sent out Friday by the Lee County District Attorney’s Office states that former First Step Learning Center owner Cynthia Jones has pleaded guilty to six counts of public assistance fraud for her role in defrauding the state of Alabama’s Department of Human Resources daycare subsidy program.
Jones received a 10-year suspended sentence on each of the six counts with five years probation. She must also payback $160,000 in restitution to the Alabama Department of Human Resources.
“This was an exhaustive investigation by the Alabama Department of Human Resources, Opelika Police Department, and the District Attorney’s office. I was glad to see Ms. Jones accept responsibility for her behavior,” said District Attorney Brandon Hughes in a written statement. “Unfortunately, due to current state law, jail time was never likely in this case based on the charges filed against the defendants. This guilty plea closes this case and avoids a protracted and costly litigation process. This scheme impacted DHR’s ability to provide daycare subsidy services for deserving families and children (and) I am happy to announce that we will be returning $320,000 to the victims in this can continue to provide for children and families in need.”
In February, the Observer and other media outlets reported that Jones and her sister Carolyn Wilkerson were taken into custody on multiple charges of public assistance fraud (a C-class felony) and first-degree property theft. Though both were related and owned and operated their own daycare centers, Hughes noted at the time that both were separate entities.
Evidence indicated that the subsidy program fraud dated back to as early as 2014. Through a credit-like card, program participants used a card to swipe their child into daycare each day, which transferred payments from the ADHR into that facility’s bank account.
According to Hughes’s office, local DHR officials and Opelika Police Department detectives, the sisters claimed funding for 100 or more non-enrolled children during the last five years, many of whose parents were on waiting lists to join the program and seeking employment. Hughes added that those parents will not face any punishment for the offenses committed by the sisters.
Jones’s conviction follows Wilkinson’s, who pleaded guilty to six counts of public assistance fraud in July.