MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A longtime Memphis educator rejected a plea deal Friday on charges that he masterminded a yearslong scheme to help teachers cheat on qualification tests, with his attorney saying the man is "all prayed up" and wants to face trial.
Clarence Mumford Sr. has acknowledged some allegations against him in talks with prosecutors, and his attorney said he rejected the deal in part because it didn't reward him for his cooperation with authorities. Attorney Coleman Garrett told a judge in December that he expected Mumford to change his plea from not guilty to more than 60 fraud and conspiracy charges.
He faces between two to 20 years in prison on each count if convicted; the plea deal called for roughly nine to 11 years total.
Prosecutors say teachers in Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas paid Mumford $1,500 to $3,000 to have ringers pass the tests for them. That fee included fake driver's licenses Mumford made for the test-takers. The passing Praxis test scores were then used to help people get jobs as teachers.
Six people already have pleaded guilty, and five other teachers have indicated they plan to do so.
Mumford told U.S. District Judge John Fowlkes that he has a right to be judged fairly and that he was not coerced or influenced by anyone in rejecting the deal.
"I made this decision based solely on me and my faith," said Mumford, adding that he has high blood pressure and diabetes.
Garrett, Mumford's court-appointed attorney, asked his 59-year old client if he knew what his decision meant.
"Do you realize that if you go to trial and are convicted in this case that it is tantamount to a life sentence?" Garrett asked.
"Yes sir," Mumford said.
Fowlkes set a trial date of March 25. Prosecutor John Fabian said the trial could take two weeks. There are 40 to 50 potential witnesses and thousands of pages of discovery in the case.
Authorities say the scheme, which allegedly ran from 1995 to 2010, affected hundreds, if not thousands, of public school students who ended up being taught by unqualified instructors. After they were indicted, some teachers were fired or suspended, while others remained employed by their school systems.
Educational Testing Services, which writes and administers the Praxis examinations, has said the company discovered the cheating in June 2009, conducted an investigation and canceled scores. The company began meeting with authorities to turn over the information later that year.
Outside the courtroom, Garrett told reporters that Mumford, a former assistant principal and counselor for Memphis City Schools, believes that two years in prison is an appropriate sentence.
Garrett also suggested that prosecutors did not offer a more lenient sentence in the plea deal because Mumford did not lead them to higher-ranking co-conspirators.
"They wanted a high-profile person" who may have been involved in the scheme, like a superintendent, Garrett said. Prosecutors have publicly said all along that Mumford was the ringleader.
Garrett said Mumford did not think his actions were criminal and considered it a moonlighting operation to earn extra income. Garrett said he asked Mumford if he was prepared to face the consequences of a trial.
"He said, `I am because I am all prayed up,'" Garrett said.
The lawyer also noted that many of the teachers who have pleaded guilty could be called as witnesses at trial, and his client may be the only one to face prison time.
"That's likely. Everybody walks except him," Garrett said. "Strange."