Cairo: 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.