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Former director of L.A. charter schools admits to embezzling $3.1 million in funds

The former executive director of a Los Angeles charter school operator on Friday agreed to plead guilty to embezzling $3.1 million in school funds that she spent on her personal use, including Disney cruises and theme park admissions, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Janis Bucknor, 52, who formerly ran the for-profit Community Preparatory Academy, pleaded guilty to criminal theft and tax fraud in an agreement with federal prosecutors filed in U.S. District Court, authorities said. CPA’s charter schools in Carson and South Los Angeles closed in 2019 after the Los Angeles Unified School District decided not to renew the company’s charter.

Bucknor, a resident of Baldwin Hills, faces a maximum sentence of 15 years in federal prison when she formally enters her plea in court, authorities said. A hearing has not yet been scheduled in the case.

Bucknor admitted using stolen funds to pay for personal travel, restaurants, Amazon and Etsy purchases and private school tuition for her children, the U.S. attorney’s office for the Central District of California said in a statement. More than $220,000 was spent on Disney-related expenses, including cruise line vacations and theme park admissions.

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The total $3.1 million in stolen funds made up nearly a third of all federal and state funding that went to CPA from early 2014 to November 2019, the U.S. attorney’s office said.

Bucknor has agreed to plead guilty to one count of theft, embezzlement and intentional misapplication of funds from an organization receiving federal funds and one count of tax evasion, admitting her failure to pay the IRS $299,639 in taxes from $1,322,254 in income that she did not report from 2015 to 2018.

She has also forfeited to the government her interest in three residential properties in South L.A. that were paid for using stolen funds.

Attempts to reach Bucknor and her husband on Friday were unsuccessful.

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According to the plea agreement, the embezzlement scheme first to light in February 2018 when L.A. Unified’s Charter School Division conducted a routine audit of CPA that revealed unauthorized payments made by Bucknor to Disney, Louis Vuitton, the Girl Scouts, Ticketmaster, National American Miss pageants and others.

Charter schools are privately managed public schools that are exempt from some rules that govern campuses run by a traditional school district. Charters are authorized by a local districts, the county or state, typically under agreements that must be renewed every five years.

Allegations of financial mismanagement plagued CPA over its five-year run. In one report to the Los Angeles Board of Education, L.A. Unified maintained that “the school is not consistently adhering to its fiscal policies and procedures and has significant and recurring fiscal-related issues.”

The district repeatedly sent warning notices over issues such as minimally qualified teachers, inadequate teacher training, misassignment of teachers outside their subject areas and a high ratio of substitutes, the report stated.

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A review by the district’s charter division Director José Cole-Gutiérrez raised questions about whether the charter had inflated its student enrollment to qualify for more state funding. The report also found that the charter school had rung up more than $180,000 in expenses it could not properly account for or document.

The L.A. Unified charter division also noted more than $76,000 in payments to another learning center incorporated by Bucknor and to her husband Philip A. Bucknor. The district concluded those payments signaled an inappropriate conflict of interest.

The school defended the payments, saying that they were authorized properly by CPA’s board of directors and that Philip Bucknor had been paid for legal services.

In 2019, federal law enforcement agents seized records from Janis Bucknor’s home in a raid conducted by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General, the U.S. Postal Service and the U.S. Secret Service with assistance from the FBI.

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Times staff writer Howard Blume contributed to this report.


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