Over the objections of prosecutors, the tutor at the center of the 2012-2013 Corona del Mar High School cheating scandal only received a year in jail Tuesday.
It sure sounds as if Timothy Lance Lai got off lightly when you consider his crime led to 11 student expulsions and suspicions that more than 150 students at CdM and Mater Dei high schools were actually involved in his cheating schemes.
Then there is the fact the 29-year-old Irvine resident fled the country when the investigation of him began in December 2013, getting apprehended upon his return to the United States at Los Angeles International Airport on Oct. 6, 2014.
Also consider what he did to a well-regarded public high school's reputation, as mentioned in Corona del Mar High Principal Kathy Scott's victim impact statement delivered in Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana on Tuesday.
“Mr. Lai's unethical conduct caused harm to the parents and students who had hired Mr. Lai,” she said. “Lives were shaken when they found out the person they trusted to help their student to improve academically, undermined them and betrayed them by his leadership role in the cheating scandal.”
Scott added that, “This incident created such a newsworthy controversy, that the entire community was harmed by the media attention and the disruption that occurred as a result of the cheating scandal. This damaged the academic integrity of CDM and devalued the perception of the CDM diploma.”
Lai was a private tutor who broke into CdM High and inserted a USB device into a teacher's computer that was able to record the user's keystrokes. Between Jan. 25 and June 14 of 2013, Lai accessed the school's network using the information from recorded keystrokes and changed the grades of students 19 different times. Between Dec. 1 and 17 of that same year, Lai also copied a second teacher's log-in information, giving him access to the entire school's grading program.
One of the teachers discovered student grades were changed and contacted school administrators on June 14, 2013. When a USB device was discovered on a third teacher's computer in December of that year, the Newport Beach Police Department was contacted, beginning the investigation that ultimately led to Lai's arrest.
He cut a deal with Orange County Superior Court Judge Robert Fitzgerald that had Lai pleading guilty Tuesday to 20 felony counts of computer access and fraud and one felony count of second degree commercial burglary in exchange for the year in jail and five years of formal probation.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Brock Zimmon, who believed Lai destroyed evidence and that the cheating scandal was more widespread than what was reflected in the criminal counts, wanted a stiffer sentence. Lai could have faced up to 16 years and four months in prison if he had been convicted at trial.
But it wasn't a reduction in time served behind bars that caused Lai to cut a deal with Judge Fitzgerald, according to the defendant's attorney. “Mr. Lai is very appreciative that we could resolve the case without further litigation,” Don Rubright told City News Service. “From the beginning he did not want any of the students or Corona del Mar High School personnel to have to testify in any contested proceedings. He is satisfied that he has been treated fairly by the judicial system and is hopeful that with his plea this situation can be put behind everyone involved.”
OC Weekly Editor-in-Chief Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the alternative newsweekly’s first calendar editor.