South L.A. charter school founder charged with embezzlement, money laundering

The head of a now-defunct South L.A. charter school has been charged with embezzlement and money laundering, accused of funneling roughly $200,000 from the school to a company she owned, prosecutors said Thursday.

Kendra Okonkwo, 51, was charged with misappropriation of public funds, grand theft by embezzlement, money laundering and keeping a false account, according to a news release issued by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. Her son, 29-year-old Jason Okonkwo, is accused of approving fake invoices to further the plot and faces the same charges, prosecutors said.

Kendra Okonkwo founded the Wisdom Academy for Young Scientists near the Watts neighborhood in 2006, but the school quickly became a target of regulators and lost its charter in 2016. She and her son were arrested in Los Angeles on Thursday morning and remain jailed in lieu of $145,000 bail, according to Deputy Dist. Atty. Dana Aratani, who is prosecuting the case.

From January 2012 to March 2014, approximately $201,000 was transferred from the school to an unnamed business run by Okonkwo, according to the district attorney’s office. The money was then transferred to her personal bank account, prosecutors said.

Her son approved a number of fake invoices, purportedly for the purchase of school supplies and food from his mother’s “shell company,” that documented the transfer of money, prosecutors said.

Okonkwo did not immediately return a call seeking comment, and it was not immediately clear if she or her son have retained attorneys.

Both face up to six years in prison if convicted. A court date has yet to be scheduled.

The school operated under the authority of the Los Angeles Unified School District until 2011, when the district declined to renew the school’s charter, citing violations of education code and conflicts of interest.

Okonkwo agreed to step down as the school’s director as part of an agreement with the county to stay in operation, but she named several relatives and associates to key positions at the school.

That move, according to the findings of a 2014 state audit, allowed her to retain control and benefit from transactions at the academy.

According to the audit’s findings, Okonkwo, her family members and close associates received about $2.6 million in payments from the school. None of the employees in question indicated any financial interest in school affairs on required conflict-of-interest statements, the audit said.

Among the audit’s findings, the organization leased two properties owned by Okonkwo’s holding company, paying more than $1 million in rent over six years. The school also paid Okonkwo $228,665 in severance, unused vacation and a vehicle lease despite a lack of documents to support the amount.

The audit also found the school had paid more than $158,800 to a company owned by a relative of Okonkwo. The payments were supposedly for school supplies, but state auditors could not confirm that the school received any of the materials for which it paid.

Aratani said prosecutors began reviewing Okonkwo’s conduct and business dealings after the audit results were released. An arraignment could take place as early as Friday, he said.

Last year, Okonkwo agreed to pay $16,000 in fines as part of a settlement with the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission after she was found to have established leases for the school at buildings she owned and used public funds to renovate those properties.

“In this matter, Okonkwo engaged in a pattern of violations in which she made, used or attempted to use her official position to influence governmental decisions involving real property in which she had a significant financial interest,” the commission said last year.

When the county began the process of revoking the school’s charter in 2014, Okonkwo claimed she was being “slandered.”

“I’m not a soldier; I’m not a politician. I’m just an educator,” she said at the time.

Times staff writer Howard Blume contributed to this report.

james.queally@latimes.com

Follow @JamesQueallyLAT for crime and police news in California.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
80°