At the end of a four hour hearing, a Los Angeles judge sentenced the founder of a San Fernando Valley charter school on Friday to 4 years and 8 months in state prison for embezzling school funds, money laundering and filing a false tax return. His wife, and co-founder, received 45 days in the county jail, probation and community service.
The case was unusual - in part because the California Charter School Association has been heavily involved and argued in court papers that a jury's conviction of Yevgency "Eugene" Selivanov and Tatyana Berkovich ought to be thrown out.
"Certain money that goes to charter schools at some point no longer becomes charter schools," said defense attorney Jeffrey Rutherford, citing what he said is the California Charter School Association's position. "That these charter schools are not considered districts."
An investigation by the L.A. District Attorney's office found that Selivanov and Berkovich bought personal items and teacher gifts from the checking account of Ivy Academia Charter Schools with campuses in Woodland Hills, Winnetka, West Hills and Chatsworth. Selivanov and Berkovich owned the facility where the school was housed and hiked the rent up $25,000 per year. The couple also lent money to the school for their personal profit. They accused the couple of stealing over $200,000. The prosecution is also asking for over $100,000 in unpaid taxes, fines and other costs.
During the hearing, the couple told the judge they made a few innocent mistakes, but otherwise operated within charter school freedoms.
Officials with the charter school association said they're worried the case could have a chilling effect - other charter operators may be disinclined to loan money to their schools or competitively compensate their teachers.
Ricardo Soto, a lawyer with the charter school association, argued the couple shouldn't be held responsible because the school’s independent board approved financial actions with the couple recused from the vote. A brief filed by the association also blamed L.A. Unfied’s lax oversight.
"They are just like any school throughout the country,” Soto said. “They want to have good quality teachers to provide their education program. These are ways a charter school can do that is unique to them versus how maybe public school districts do it."
The school remains open. Deputy Dist. Atty. Dana Aratani declined to comment on the case.
During Friday's hearing, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Stephen Marcus berated the charter association for supporting the couple.
“This case has to make the public wonder, are these new charter schools just a means to defraud the public tax payer?” Marcus asked. “Again, I don’t think this is the case. But to defend Selivanov and Berkovich simply because they run a charter school is not appropriate.”
Officials with the California Charter School Association said in a statement released Friday afternoon they “will explore all legal options to ensure that Mr. Selivanov and Ms. Berkovich serve little to no prison or jail time in connection to these charges and case.”
They did win on one front Friday.
Marcus said he erred in his instructions to the jury on public funds - one of the association's key arguments. He nullified the guilty verdicts on charges of misappropriating public funds and "false accounting."
Prosecutors have the choice to accept that decision or retry the couple on those charges.
Marcus has not determined how much the couple should pay in restitution. He set a hearing for November 15.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated when the charter school association argued the conviction should be thrown out. Also, lawyer Ricardo Soto's first name was incorrect. KPCC regrets the error.