JCSU probes ‘criminal conspiracy’ over student food service cards

JCSU graduates wave to family members during the processional at Johnson C. Smith University’s 2016 commencement.
JCSU graduates wave to family members during the processional at Johnson C. Smith University’s 2016 commencement. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

Johnson C. Smith University is investigating fraudulent use of student meal cards that, according to one student, might keep some seniors from graduating on Sunday.

In a statement, the university said it has uncovered evidence of fraudulent transactions involving “flex dollars” loaded to meal cards, but did not detail what the fraud entailed. The cards are used to buy food on campus and the university says it suspects students as well as employees with Perkins Management Services are involved.

Perkins is the on-campus dining operator and is based in Charlotte. The company did not return calls from the Observer seeking comment.

University officials say they don’t yet know how many students participated. The suspected fraud was recently discovered.

A recent review by a Perkins employee found more than 300 potential fraudulent transactions, according to the university’s statement.

“The university’s director of judicial affairs is undertaking a careful, thorough investigation and has contacted every student whose card has a questionable transaction,” the statement said. “In the coming weeks, the director will meet with each student to gather relevant facts. Students found to have engaged in the fraud will face judicial review.”

An email from the administration to some students notified them they were under investigation for allegations they took part in a “criminal conspiracy by which you illegally received funds from (food service franchises) Red Mango and/or Burger King at JCSU, using your (flex dollars) identification account.”

The email warns of possible criminal prosecutions and disciplinary action, and says failure to comply with the investigation could affect registering for classes, transcripts and graduation.

Part of the letter to students was written in all capital letters warning them not to discuss the matter with anyone.

One free speech and due process advocate said that’s crossing the line.

The university has essentially issued students – guilty or not – a “gag order,” said Samantha Harris, an attorney and the vice president of policy research at FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. FIRE is a non-partisan organization based in Philadelphia that provides legal aid to students and university employees who believe their freedoms – like speech or religion – has been violated at school.

“What if you received this email and you had no idea what this is about,” she said. “What would they expect a wrongly accused student to do in this case?”

The university did not respond to the Observer’s questions about the email telling students to stay quiet.

Johnson C. Smith is a private university but students still have rights and should be allowed to speak with an attorney if they are under criminal investigation, Harris contended. The initial email to students this week said “criminal prosecution” is possible, in addition to unspecified on-campus punishment.

University spokesperson Sherri Belfield told the Observer Friday the ongoing investigation is internal. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department did not appear to have any records of a criminal complaint and the university’s Campus Police Department said no criminal complaint had been filed.

Belfield said she did not know whether the allegations affect any graduating seniors.

WSOC-TV on Friday quoted an unidentified student as saying employees at campus Red Mango and Burger King restaurants were able to illegally add money to student cards.

“People started adding on stuff for friends, girls, adding on stuff for numerous reasons. Sometimes people just didn’t care and added it on just because they could,” the student said.

A second student who didn’t want to be identified told the Observer he blamed the food-service franchises for problems with flex-card transactions. “They’re making us pay the bill for their negligence,” he said.

Students were notified for the first time about the problem on May 9, he said. The impasse affects 25 seniors, scheduled to graduate Sunday, and means other students can’t register for fall classes or get transcripts needed to transfer to other schools, the student said.

Some affected students are selling clothes and taking other steps to try to raise money, the student said.

Johnson C. Smith, a historically black school, celebrated its 150th anniversary this year and has about 1,400 students.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender