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Owner of Totowa test prep firm admits stealing questions

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YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: An owner and operator of a a North Jersey company that helps doctors prepare for licensing exams today admitted her role in stealing “live” examination questions from the National Board of Medical Examiners with her ex-husband, who remains a fugitive.

Egija Kuka, 38, who owned and operated Optima University out of Totowa with her co-defendant Eihab Suliman, was extradited from Latvia last month.

This morning, Kuka told pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Newark to two counts of a federal indictment charging her with mail and wire fraud and conspiracy.

Kuka said she and her ex-husband swiped the questions from the National Board of Medical Examiners (“NBME”) and used them in their preparation courses for the exams, which physicians seeking licenses throughout the United States are required to pass.

Both operated from the same Route 46 address as Islamic Relief USA and the Islamic Education Foundation, both service organizations.

“State medical boards protect the public by permitting only individuals who have met strict criteria to practice medicine,” U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman said. By taking the questions, he alleged, “the defendants made it possible for their customers to pass the boards without the minimal knowledge and skills for safe and effective practice.”

“The importance of this investigation lies with ensuring the quality of medical school graduates via USMLE certification is fair, honest, and accurate,” added Michael B. Ward, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Newark field office.

Customers who paid the $5,000 for the course have complained online about Optima failing to abide by a “100% money back” guarantee for those who take Step 1 of the exam.

Complainants also have called the company’s 98% pass rate “a fabrication.”

Federal authorities were looking into the company as far back as three years ago, after Kuka registered for the exam by claiming she had been graduated from the University of Oradea, an accredited medical school in Romania, with a Doctorate in Medicine degree, the indictment alleges. A fabricated diploma initially was rejected because it wasn’t in English. Kuka and her then-husband resubmitted another phony, this one in English, the government said.

Surveillance video caught Kuka recording the live test questions that were displayed on the computer monitor using a small digital device in Milan in April 2008, the indictment says. It was the first of three tests she took there over the next month — and it was unusually low scores that prompted medical authorities to investigate.

A year later, the sponsoring organizations of the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) and the National Board of Medical Examiners sued the company in U.S. District Court in Tennessee on charges of unlawfully using the copyrighted questions in their courses. The couple has gone through several lawyers while keeping the case at bay, records show.

The original lawsuit said Optima paid students from Eastern European countries to take the exams and lift the questions. The thieves themselves received “anomalously low scores,” it alleges.

“Americans rely on the USMLE as a keystone in the medical licensing process, our primary means of assessing the competence of physicians who wish to practice medicine in the United States,” said Daniel Kimball, Jr., MD, chair of the USMLE Composite Committee, which sets policy for the exam’s administration. “The integrity of the exam is critical for public safety.”

The USMLE is copyrighted, and USMLE examinees agree not to disclose secure test questions at any time. Unauthorized access to secure test materials may raise questions about the validity of a test-taker’s score.

Providers of legitimate review courses create their own test prep materials. Under U.S. copyright laws, test prep companies have no right to use USMLE test items.

Prosecuting the case is Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah J. Gannett of Fishman’s Health Care and Government Fraud Unit in Newark. According to an official government news release:

“The USMLE consists of several component steps, among which are three computer-administered, multiple choice tests. These exams are given numerous times throughout the year at various test centers in the United States and abroad, including in Milan, Italy, through the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates. Test questions for any given exam are randomly drawn from a pool of proprietary questions, and NBME takes measures to keep test questions secure.

“Beginning in approximately December 2007, Suliman and Kuka solicited potential Optima University students by guaranteeing that they would pass the USMLE if they enrolled at Optima University, even if they had previously failed it.

“Suliman and Kuka also assured potential students that any tuition paid would be ‘risk-free,’ and that any student who did not pass the USMLE could retake the Optima course at no additional cost.

“The FBI launched an investigation into Suliman and Kuka after NBME staff discovered unusually low scores and unusual response patterns on multiple exams taken by Kuka.

“On May 28, 2008, a search was conducted at Optima University and Suliman’s computer and other items were seized. Proprietary test questions were found on the computer that the defendants had used in practice examinations provided to Optima University students.”

U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman credited special agents of the FBI, and thanked both the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of International Affairs Criminal Division and officials in the Republic of Latvia, for building the case, handled by Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah J. Gannett of the U.S. Attorney’s Office Health Care and Government Fraud Unit.

Sentencing is scheduled for March 19, 2013.

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