LOS ANGELES (CNS) — The founder of Los Angeles charter school network Celerity Educational Group has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to misappropriate and embezzle public funds.
Vielka McFarlane admitted in a plea agreement filed in federal court in Los Angeles Tuesday, Jan. 8, that she misspent $2.5 million in public education funds intended for Celerity students.
The felony charge stems from the 57-year-old Sylmar resident’s habit of using her charter schools’ credit cards to pay for expensive clothing, luxury hotel stays and first-class flights for her and her family, according to the US Attorney’s Office.
The bulk of the funds — which partly came from the US Department of Education — were used without authorization to purchase a building for another charter school in Ohio. McFarlane also admitted improperly using public funds to pay the security deposit, rent and renovations at a soundstage and recording studio in Canoga Park, which was rarely used by students.
McFarlane founded Celerity Educational Group in 2004 and served as its CEO until April 2015.
“When anyone repurposes public school funds for self-serving reasons, students suffer,” First Assistant US Attorney Tracy L. Wilkison said last month. “This case involving the former CEO of Celerity demonstrates our ongoing efforts to protect and safeguard public funds, and to hold accountable those who improperly use those funds for their own gain.”
Between 2009 and 2013, McFarlane used credit cards issued to Celerity Educational Groups and Celerity Global Development to buy luxury items from the Salvatore Ferragamo boutique in Beverly Hills and high-end shops in Tokyo, customized recreational bicycles for her and her spouse, and purchase more than $5,000 in leather-making equipment used by a for-profit company in which McFarlane and her family members were partners, according to her plea agreement.
She also admitted to illegally using a school credit card to purchase round-trip airfare for her and family members to attend President Barack Obama’s second inauguration in January 2013.
McFarlane further acknowledged that she did not reimburse Celerity Education Group or Celerity Global Development for any of the payments described in the plea agreement prior to the government’s criminal investigation.
McFarlane, who is scheduled to be sentenced May 13, faces up to five years in federal prison, federal prosecutors said. She agreed to forfeit items purchased with public funds and may be ordered to pay $250,000 in restitution, the plea agreement states.
In June 2017, the U.S. Attorney’s Office entered into an agreement with Celerity Educational Group, now known as ISANA Academies, in which ISANA recognized and acknowledged the misconduct committed by McFarlane, agreed to cooperate fully with the government’s investigation, and agreed to implement certain reforms designed to ensure that similar conduct does not occur again.