The conviction of a Mississippi man for bilking military veterans out of their GI Bill benefits through a bogus trade school sparks questions about the fate of potentially dozens of licensed barbers and a contract the convict continued to perform for the VA, the same agency that arrested him for fraud.
In Jackson on Wednesday, Aug. 17, US District Judge Carlton W. Reeves sentenced Anthony Kelley, the owner of Trendsetters Barber College, to a year and a day behind bars. Kelley, 60, had inked a plea deal with federal prosecutors on May 20, 2021, for two counts of wire fraud.
The judge also ordered him to repay the US Department of Veterans Affairs $402,357.14, the proceeds from a shady “Master Barber” course Kelley ran between 2016 and 2019 in Jackson.
But Wednesday’s hearing wasn’t the first time the judge had tried to sentence Kelley. It was the third.
The first hearing in late 2021 fizzled because Kelley dumped his initial criminal defense lawyer. The second try, on May 3, 2022, was marked by concerns the judge expressed about the VA’s decision to keep paying Kelley’s company to style patients’ hair at the agency’s medical center in Jackson.
VA investigators were the ones who kicked off the fraud probe in the first place three years earlier, and the VA was listed as the victim in the pleadings, an exasperated Reeves noted.
“Well, let me say I am perplexed by this notion that he says that he has a contract with the VA,” Reeves told prosecutors. “And that contract has not been terminated. I’m just wondering, what’s going on with the VA? If this is the case, if this is somebody who has been convicted, who’s pled guilty to defrauding the VA, how is it that the VA continues to be in a financial relationship with the person for doing the wrong thing?”
The lead prosecutor, Assistant US Attorney Andrew W. Eichner, also seemed surprised. He told Reeves he’d learned when the judge had about Kelley’s ongoing hair-cutting contract with the VA. Eichner asked VA agents to figure out what had happened.
On Thursday, Coffee or Die Magazine tried to ask the VA the same questions the judge had uttered in court, but the queries were met with silence.
VA officials in Jackson did not respond to Coffee or Die’s messages. The VA’s Office of Inspector General, which probed the case, referred all inquiries to the agency’s national headquarters in Washington, DC.
And officials there also never responded.
It remains unclear whether the VA ever terminated the contract with the barber who defrauded it.
It’s also unknown how much the VA paid out to Kelley and his company after he pleaded guilty to stealing from the agency and military veterans.
Both Eichner and the judge also voiced concerns about what the Mississippi Board of Barber Examiners might do concerning the professional licenses of military vets who’d graduated from Kelley’s fake class.
Kelley’s indictment mentioned two defrauded veterans, but questions lingered about how many more had attended the fake course.
“A fraud has been committed against these veterans. Really, at the end of the day, it’s about the veterans,” Eichner said. “The money is owed back to the VA, but veterans were defrauded out of their GI Bills for this course that could not exist.”
The prosecutor told the judge a state investigator was poised to act on Trendsetters Barber College, once the case had been adjudicated by the feds.
That also puzzled the judge because it had already been nearly a year since Kelley pleaded guilty, and the state agency had never pounced.
Coffee or Die called the board on Thursday to see what, if anything, its regulatory watchdogs did about Kelley and his uncertified hair-cutting class. An official there said that, not only had they taken no action against the barber and his college, but also no one there had even heard about the case.
As with the VA, two additional Coffee or Die messages sent to the board seeking clarification about the Kelley case went unanswered.
The person who revealed these issues to federal investigators — Kelley — also proved hard to reach. His listed telephone number appears to be disconnected, and he didn’t respond to emailed messages from Coffee or Die seeking comment. His attorney also didn’t respond to written questions.
On Thursday, Coffee or Die asked the judge to remove seals placed on multiple court records that might shine a brighter light on the case, including the role Mississippi regulators and VA officials played in it, but he hasn’t ruled on the news outlet’s request.
During the May sentencing hearing, Kelley expressed remorse for defrauding veterans and the VA.
Although he never served in the military, Kelley said his father was a veteran of the Vietnam War. Records revealed that Kelley had also helmed a Mississippi nonprofit, Phase 2 Outreach, that sought to help the community. He also had a spotless criminal record before VA agents arrested him.
“I’m throwing myself at the mercy of the court because I’m not a menace to society,” Kelley told the judge.
And the judge must’ve agreed. Prosecutors urged Reeves to put Kelley behind bars for 37 months. On Wednesday, the judge gave him 366 days.
Kelley is slated to report to a federal penitentiary on Oct. 11.