Exec pleads guilty to wire fraud in Brattleboro education embezzlement

By Mike Donoghue, Vermont News First

BURLINGTON — The former vice president of human resources for World Learning, which has offices in Brattleboro, pleaded guilty Friday afternoon in U.S. District Court to wire fraud in connection with an estimated $425,000 embezzlement between 2014 and 2022.

Carleena Graham, 56, of Accokeek, Maryland has paid back about $200,000, according to one of her defense lawyers, Walter A. Reynoso of Coral Gables, Fla.

She is facing a possible prison sentence somewhere between 27 and 33 months according to the signed plea agreement that included a preliminary calculation under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which are advisory.

Chief Federal Judge Geoffrey W. Crawford said the final sentence on Dec. 15 will be determined after a presentence report is prepared by the U.S. Probation Office.  The maximum penalty is 20 years in prison and a $250,000  fine.

Graham is attempting to pay back between $5,000 and $8,000 a month while working as a human resources consultant, according to her other defense lawyer, Christina Nolan of Burlington.

The court was told Graham is planning to sell her Maryland home and move in with her sister in North Carolina.

Reynoso, who specializes in defending serious white-collar charges, said the hope is to have the debt paid off by the December sentencing.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Waples said he had no objection to Graham remaining free pending the sentencing in December.  He said Graham has known about the criminal case since last year and came to court on a summons.

She agreed to waive formal indictment and come right in and plead guilty as part of her acceptance of reasonability.
Graham agreed to a criminal forfeiture of $425,000, according to the 11-page signed plea agreement.

Reynoso and Nolan flanked Graham, who was dressed in a black suit and wiped tears aware from her eyes multiple times during the 30-minute hearing.

She was placed under oath at the start of the hearing to answer questions from the judge.  Graham said she was has been under the care of a psychologist and is taking medication for depression.

Graham said she was clear-headed and fully understood what was going on.  She said she also understood her constitutional rights as Crawford listed them.

World Learning is a non-profit global development and exchange organization that has delivered educational and professional training programs, and people-to-people exchange opportunities around the world. Besides operating the School for International Training in Brattleboro, World Learning also had offices in Washington, D.C.

World Learning, which maintained bank accounts in Vermont, has received millions of dollars in federal funding from the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Agency of International Development, court records show.

Waples said in open court that World Learning hired Graham as its Director of Human Resources in 2014 and she later was promoted to Divisional Vice President of Human Resources.  Graham later became Vice President of Human Resources and had access to a World Learning credit card to be used for office purposes until late July 2022, he said.

Graham held positions at or had relationships with other non-profit and charitable organizations in the Washington D.C. area that she used to help with her fraud, court records show.

Starting in about 2016 Graham orchestrated a scheme to defraud World Learning of hundreds of thousands of dollars, court records show.  As part of the plan Graham arranged for goods and services to be delivered to the third-party organizations, and then fraudulently arranged for World Learning to pay for these goods and services through electronic transfers of money from its Vermont bank account.

“As part of the scheme, Graham falsified invoices submitted by vendors for payment of the goods and services to make them appear as though World Learning was the recipient of the goods and services,” Waples read from the plea agreement.

Graham often misused her access to World Learning’s credit cards to cause the non-profit to pay expenses incurred by the third-party organizations, he said.

Under the plea agreement, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has agreed it will not pursue other criminal charges in Vermont involving the defrauding of World Learning.

U.S. Attorney Nikolas “Kolo” Kerest said last month the criminal investigation was conducted by the Offices of Inspector General for both the Department of State and the Agency of International Development.

Two investigators sat with Waples at the prosecution table, but both refused to provide names or public contact information for their offices to answer questions.

According to its website, The World Learning Inc. family was founded in 1932, when Dr. Donald Watt launched the organization’s flagship program, The Experiment in International Living. Inspired by the belief that sending Americans abroad would expand their worldview and cultivate cross-cultural understanding and respect, Watt and 23 young men — the first Experiment group — sailed for Europe to attend a summer camp with Swiss and German teenagers.

The students returned transformed. They had a different outlook on the world, as well as new leadership and communication skills. The following summer, The Experiment became the first program to offer homestays so that American students could fully immerse themselves in different cultures.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy tapped Sargent Shriver, an early Experimenter, to become the first director of the newly formed Peace Corps. Shriver drew upon his experiences with The Experiment to craft the Peace Corps’ founding principles and invited The Experiment to help train volunteers prior to their placements. These Peace Corps training activities led to the establishment of an academic institution—School for International Training (SIT)—in 1964.

Categories: Crime