By Maggie Michael and R. Satter
A group of Saudi students caught in a cheating scandal at a Montana college were offered flights home by their kingdom's diplomats to avoid the possibility of deportation or arrest, according to a cache of Saudi Embassy memos recently published by WikiLeaks and a senior official at the school involved.
The students were in a ring of roughly 30 alleged cheaters at Montana Tech accused of having systematically forged grades by giving presents to a college employee.
The cheating was discovered — and the staffer was fired — following an investigation made public in early 2012, but the memos reveal for the first time that the students were almost all Saudis and that their government booked them flights home following a meeting between college administrators and Saudi diplomats in Washington just before the scandal broke.
A Saudi memo describing the meeting, dated Feb. 3, 2012 and labeled "Secret / Urgent," says it was Montana Tech Chancellor Donald Blackketter who floated the idea of flying the students out of the United States. The memo goes on to say that an unidentified diplomat at the embassy subsequently "issued travel tickets to those students ... to return to the kingdom so they don't face jail or deportation by the American authorities."
Reached by phone at his home in Butte, Montana, the college's Vice-Chancellor of Academic Affairs Douglas Abbott told The Associated Press the Saudi Embassy's account of the meeting sounded accurate.
"I think that we might've recommended that," he said of the flights. Montana law doesn't bar the alteration of school records — even in return for gifts — but Abbott said that, at the time, campus authorities believed the students could be arrested or even expelled from the country.
"We didn't know whether this would happen, whether ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) would show up on the Montana Tech campus," he said.
Blackketter did not return messages seeking comment.
The revelations caused a scandal at Montana Tech, a small four-year college located in the mining city of Butte, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. Originally chartered as the Montana State School of Mines, the school is known for its metallurgy, mining, and engineering specialties. Scores of Saudi students — many of them sponsored by their embassy's cultural section or the Saudi Arabian Oil Co. — attend the college every year to study for degrees in fields like petroleum engineering.
Officials first noticed transcript alterations on Oct. 25, 2011, and irregularities piled up as the school began digging, according to a statement read out by Abbott during a meeting on Jan. 26, 2012 and later posted to YouTube.
Abbott said college investigators interviewed an unnamed employee who admitted altering the transcripts. An audit of three years' records threw up instances of grades being changed, grades being deleted from transcripts and of "ghost registrations" — grades being awarded for classes never taken. In the most extreme case, a student had 16 grade changes, four courses deleted, and six courses added to their transcript.
"It casts an unfavorable light on the institution," Abbott acknowledged in the video. But he said officials had been transparent. "The campus is not — has not — tried to hide any of this," he said.
The Saudi memos reveal that, on Jan. 4, several days before the scandal became public knowledge, Abbott and Blackketter went to the Saudi Embassy in Washington to brief officials there about the cheating allegations.
Abbott told AP that the college had been advised by legal counsel that the Saudi Embassy — which together with Saudi Aramco was sponsoring 33 of the suspected cheaters at Montana Tech — should be told of the issue.
He declined to comment on why his colleague had apparently suggested flying the students out of the country, saying he didn't remember that aspect of the conversation in any detail.
Abbott said the college's legal counsel had warned against naming the students or identifying them by nationality. He added that the college notified the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education in Montana and even called in the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to investigate what he believed were possible crimes.
Officials from both agencies arrived on campus on Jan. 9 for interviews, Abbott said, but no one was ever charged. He said that was because the rogue employee didn't accept money for the transcript alterations.
The employee did accept "gifts" in return for the grade changes, according to another Saudi memo, dated Feb. 2. Abbott said he didn't remember exactly what the gifts were, describing them only as "small tokens of appreciation."
He declined to identify the employee involved.
Abbott could not immediately say whether the college called law enforcement before or after he and Blackketter visited the Saudi Embassy. Messages left with the FBI and with the DHS public affairs department were not immediately returned.
Many of the students were eventually expelled, although it's unclear what happened to all of them. Abbott said he didn't know whether the students flew to Saudi Arabia before the scandal broke and law enforcement authorities showed up. However the Feb. 3 embassy memo is phrased in a way that suggests the flights had not yet occurred.
Abbott confirmed information in the Saudi memos which stated that seven students had returned to the college, including at least two who said their grades had been changed without their knowledge — unusual incidents which neither Abbott nor the memo explained in any further detail.
Abbott said that 18 students were ultimately expelled and that an unspecified number of graduates had their degrees revoked.
The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not return a message seeking comment on the flights. The embassy has not responded to repeated requests for comment about the massive cache of diplomatic memos made public by WikiLeaks on Friday, although a recent statement carried by the official Saudi news agency appears to acknowledge that the memos paint an accurate picture of the kingdom's diplomats and their activities abroad.
"The documents leaked fall in line with the public policy of the Foreign Ministry," spokesman Osama Nugali said Saturday.