Key actors in Coast Guard test-fixing scheme plead guilty

Two former U.S. Coast Guard employees have pleaded guilty to accepting bribes in a test-score-fixing scheme in Louisiana, and charges against another former employee have been upgraded.

Dorothy Smith and Beverly McCrary pleaded guilty on Feb. 24 before Judge Barry Ashe to conspiracy to defraud the United States, U.S. Attorney Duane Evans announced in New Orleans this spring.

The maximum penalties for each defendant are five years’ imprisonment, a $250,000 fine, three years of supervised release and a $100 mandatory special assessment fee. Sentencing is scheduled for June 23 (after Professional Mariner’s print deadline).

Smith and McCrary worked as credentialing specialists at a Coast Guard exam center in Mandeville, La. Smith was authorized to enter scores for examinations merchant mariners were required to pass to obtain licenses. 

Smith admitted accepting bribes to raise scores. While she sometimes interacted directly with license applicants by soliciting bribes when they came to the exam center, she primarily relied on intermediaries, officials said. 

Mariners who provided bribes usually did not appear for the examinations. Instead, Smith would create Coast Guard records and data entries to make it appear that the mariners had appeared and taken the tests. Smith would make up passing scores and enter them in a Coast Guard computer system, according to the Justice Department. She would then send emails to a Coast Guard office falsely stating that the mariners had passed the examinations and should receive the desired endorsements.

McCrary pleaded guilty to being one of Smith’s intermediaries while employed at the exam center and after her retirement in 2015. McCrary would gather money and information about the desired endorsements and then provide the information and a portion of the money to Smith.

McCrary almost always required upfront cash payments but on occasion would accept other things of value, authorities said. For example, she accepted coolers of fresh-caught shrimp from one mariner. McCrary instructed mariners to not contact the exam center regarding their credential applications. She also urged them to not work on vessels during days they were supposed to be testing, and to use code words when discussing the scheme on the telephone.

Federal authorities did not disclose what code words were used. 

McCrary developed her own network of intermediaries. They included Alexis Bell, Michael Wooten and Sharron Robinson, who have all pleaded guilty and admitted to having McCrary arrange false scores for 31 mariners, including themselves.

Smith and McCrary admitted engaging in the scheme from before April 2012 until May 2019 and arranging false scores for more than 50 mariners. Almost all the licenses issued as a result were officer level. Investigators are working to identify licenses that were obtained fraudulently through the scheme. 

Ashe on Jan. 7 sentenced Wooten to 54 months in prison and on Feb. 3 sentenced Bell to 42 months in prison. Wooten and Bell were each also sentenced to one year of supervised release to follow their prison terms.

On Jan. 20, Ashe sentenced two of the mariners who received fraudulent licenses. Fredrick Nettles was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment followed by one year of supervised release and 100 hours of community service. Stinson Payne was sentenced to one year probation and 100 hours of community service.

Seven of the eight defendants charged in a separate indictment pleaded guilty to obtaining unearned endorsements through false scores entered by Smith: Ransford Ackah, Odell Griggs and Devin Hebert pleaded guilty Jan. 13; Nathaniel Dominick, Raynel Lewis and Maurice Palmer pleaded guilty Feb. 3; and Adrian Mack pleaded guilty on Feb. 10. All told, dozens of people have pleaded guilty in connection with the scheme. 

According to U.S. Attorney Evans, former Coast Guard employee Eldridge Johnson was charged on March 30 with bribery in a superseding bill of information. He was previously charged with one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States. The superseding bill of information includes that conspiracy charge and adds the new allegation of bribery in connection with his work as an examination administrator at Mandeville.

From at least 2011 until about the time of his retirement in January 2018, Johnson is accused of receiving bribes from merchant mariners. As with the others in the case, Johnson allegedly sold examination questions and answers to mariners before they took the tests and removed confidential documents from the exam center as an intermediary for Dorothy Smith. 

Johnson faces up to 15 years in prison for bribery and five years for conspiracy. Each offense is punishable by a fine of up to $250,000.