The founder of Los Angeles charter school network Celerity Educational Group faces a possible federal prison term when she is sentenced Monday for conspiring to misappropriate and embezzle public funds.
Vielka McFarlane pleaded guilty to the single felony count in January, admitting that she misspent $2.5 million in public education funds intended for Celerity students. The charge stems from the 57-year-old Sylmar resident’s habit of using her schools’ credit cards to pay for expensive clothing, luxury hotel stays and first-class flights for her and her family, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The bulk of the funds — which partly came from the U.S. 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.
The government is asking for a three-year prison sentence, while McFarlane’s attorney recommends a two-month stay behind bars, followed by three years’ supervised release including nine months in home detention and 1,000 hours of education-related community service.
According to papers filed by her attorney, the Panama-born McFarlane “started an organization that expanded too quickly and caused (her) to lose sight of her roots.” Her conspiracy conviction is “mitigated by her decades of public service and the good intentions” that led to the founding of Celerity.
As part of her plea deal, McFarlane agreed to forfeit items purchased with public funds and she may be ordered by U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner to pay restitution.
McFarlane founded Celerity Educational Group in 2004 and served as its CEO until April 2015.
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 purchased 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 filed in Los Angeles federal court.
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.
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.
A second former Celerity official is also facing corruption charges. Grace Canada, 45, of Torrance — who followed McFarlane as the network’s CEO — is scheduled to go to trial in November on nearly the same charges as her predecessor. Canada followed McFarlane as Celerity’s chief executive officer in April 2015, and stepped down in October 2017.
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