The founder of Los Angeles charter school network Celerity Educational Group was sentenced Monday to 2 1/2 years in federal prison for misappropriating $3.2 million in public education funds and using the money for personal expenses.
Vielka McFarlane pleaded guilty in January to a single felony count of conspiracy to misappropriate and embezzle public funds, admitting that she used part of the money to pay for personal expenses including first-class air travel, fine dining and luxury goods.
The bulk of the misspent funds — which came from the U.S. Department of Education — was used to purchase and renovate an office building in Columbus, Ohio, where McFarlane oversaw the founding of a separate charter school, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
She 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.
In a brief statement to the court, McFarlane blamed a previous attorney for advising her to start a company in order to aid in Celerity’s expansion.
“That was my first mistake,” she told the judge. “My intent was not to take the money and run. I intended to repay it — and I did.”
Before imposing the sentence, U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner told the defendant that she stood before him as an example to students.
“If you make mistakes, you have to pay the price,” the judge said.
In addition to the 30-month prison sentence, McFarlane was ordered to pay $225,000 in restitution to the U.S. Department of Education, and she will spend three years on supervised release after serving her prison time.
The judge ordered the defendant immediately into custody.
McFarlane’s attorney, Gary Brucker Jr., unsuccessfully argued for a two-month maximum term behind bars, followed by nine months of home detention.
Brucker said his client’s offense was not motivated by “greed and self-interest.” The case, he said, “is about a woman who blurred lines between corporate entities.”
As part of her plea deal, McFarlane agreed to forfeit items purchased with public funds.
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 chief executive officer — is scheduled to go to trial in November on nearly the same charges as her predecessor. Canada followed McFarlane as Celerity’s CEO in April 2015, and stepped down in October 2017.