Court maintains four-year prison sentence handed for continuing education fraud scheme

The Court of Second Instance (TSI) has denied an appeal by a man sentenced to four years in prison for fraud connected to funds provided between 2014 and 2016 under the continuing education support plan advanced by the Education and Youth Development Bureau (DSEDJ).

Under the scheme, Macau residents are encouraged to pursue continuing education to improve personal attainments and skills, with residents 15-years-old or above sponsored MOP6,000 (US$742) that can be used to participate in local and overseas continuing education programmes, tertiary education and certificate examinations.

According to the court, to gain illicit gains, five people told people interested in enrolling in courses financed in the 2014-2016 and 2017-2019 Continuing Education Development Scheme rounds, that they could receive the respective commission and would not be obliged to attend classes.

The five defendants were said to have managed to attract the attention of 95 local residents who had not yet used the total amount of funding for the programs above and helped 72 interested parties to fraudulently enrol in courses given, for that purpose, by two education centres managed by one of them, the appellant.

This man was responsible for submitting the declaration of the number of false tuition fees to the then Education and Youth Services Bureau (DSEJ) and also ‘lied to the other 23 interested parties’, saying that they helped them to enrol in courses whose funding had not yet been authorised by the DSEJ, when in fact these interested parties were enrolled in courses financed and taught by another education managed by him.

As a result, the three education centres managed by the accused were wrongly allocated MOP498,258 in funding via the scheme, while declaring false data in the computer system, namely, the general attendance data of the trainees, the nominal relationships of the trainees, the names and contents of the courses, among others, in order to deceive the DSEJ.

In the end, the man in question was sentenced by the Court of First Instance to 4 years in prison for 95 counts of fraud and 75 counts of computer forgery crime, with the remaining four defendants handed prison sentences between 1 to 2 years and six months.

The accused – together with another defendant – then appealed to the TSI, claiming its sentencing to be “excessive” and requesting a suspended sentence.

However, the TSI considered that the trial sufficiently revealed that the purpose of awarding the commissions by the defendant is not merely to attract students to enroll in the courses in question, but rather to obtain an illegal benefit.

The defendants, having adopted the method of ‘only enrolling in a course and not attending classes’ attracted MSAR residents with no interest in enrolling in courses to fraudulently enroll in courses offered by the education centers in question, fully meeting the constitutive elements of the crime of fraud,’ the court considered.

As for the classification of the crime of computer forgery, according to the court, the verification of the crime of computer forgery does not require the determination of the total falsehood of the courses in question, but rather, proof of the total lack of veracity of the legally relevant facts that were entered into the computer system.

“In the present case, in the computer system, [the defendant] falsely presented the trainees’ nominal lists, the trainees’ attendance data and the number of tuition fees to support the expenses derived from the commissions paid to trainees and intermediaries, undoubtedly gathering the constitutive elements of the computer forgery crime.

Therefore the court maintained the effective prison sentence, however, it sustained an appeal by another defendant who had asked for 2 years and 6 months prison sentence to be suspended.

In its decision, the court stated that in consideration that the accused suffered from an ‘oncological disease’ and that the ‘mere threat of imprisonment was enough’ to make this defendant ‘stop dedicating himself to crime in the future’, providing that the objective of the criminal policy in question could be achieved by the suspension of the execution of the prison sentence.

In a separate statement addressing this court case, the DSEDJ indicated that it will continue to collaborate with judicial bodies in combating and eradicating all illegal and irregular acts.

“In order to rigorously implement the inspection work of the Continuing Education Development Scheme for the years 2020 to 2023, DSEDJ carries out an electronic inspection of the courses and exams covered by the program through on-site inspections, data analysis and of the inspection platform for the entire population, among several other measures,” the department noted.

Since the beginning of the fourth phase of the Programme, the DSEDJ has carried out more than 5,000 on-site inspections at the institutions participating in the scheme, corresponding to twice the number of inspections carried out in the same period of the previous phase of the Programme.

The DSEDJ also carried out the examination and approval of documents, random verification of cases and the review of more than 15,000 inquiries from participants in local continuing education courses, as well as processing more than 150 opinions submitted by residents through the platform of supervision for the entire population.

However, it noted that so far there have already been “dozens of suspected cases of irregularities”, most of which are related to courses that are not carried out in accordance with the conditions and contents previously assessed and authorized.

“At this stage, the number of cases involving criminal offences for fraud has decreased significantly, with only one of these cases being referred to the judicial bodies,” it added.

After an audit of its operations in the past five years, DSEJ this year announced that it will ‘seriously review and optimize’ the functioning of its Educational Development Fund.

The internal review was ordered by the secretary for Social Affairs and Culture, Ao Ieong U, last year after a fraud case involving some MOP20.3 million in DSEJ subsidies provided to local catholic school Colégio Diocesano de São José 5.