The chief executive of one of the city's oldest charter schools on Tuesday admitted stealing $88,000 from the school, including donations to a college scholarship fund launched in his father's memory.
As he pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges, Masai Skief also acknowledged that he lied to investigators and coaxed others to do the same while the FBI examined the finances of the Harambee Institute of Science and Technology Charter School in West Philadelphia.
Skief, 32, is the son of John Skief, who founded the Harambee Institute in 1976 as an "educational hub" during a school strike and two decades later opened the charter school on North 66th Street. Harambee calls itself the city's first African-centered school; its name means "let's pull together" in Swahili.
The school drew a spotlight three years ago when the City Controller's Office cited it in a report on possible fraud in charter schools and news accounts said a nightclub had been operating on Harambee grounds. At the time, Skief derided the reports as biased and said the school had been misrepresented.
The younger Skief had been a $40,000-a-year teacher at the school, according to court filings. But after his father's death in 2007, he took over as chief administrator, eventually climbing to a base salary of about $100,000.
As a leader of the school and the nonprofit institute that managed it, Skief had access to its financial accounts, First Assistant U.S. Attorney Louis Lappen told U.S. District Judge Paul Diamond.
In 2009, the prosecutor said, Skief shifted $9,000 from a scholarship fund established in his father's name to a personal account, and then used it as part of a payment on a Philadelphia home. (Property records show Skief bought a three-bedroom West Philadelphia home.)
Between July 2010 and August 2012, Skief made dozens of ATM withdrawals of school funds for his own use, Lappen said. He also gave $3,000 to an unnamed relative.
"Did Mr. Lappen correctly describe what you did here?" the judge asked Skief during the hearing.
"Yes," he replied.
Diamond scheduled his sentencing for Nov. 14, and barred Skief from having any financial responsibilities at the school while he is free on bail. Federal sentencing guidelines suggest a prison term of between 21 and 27 months.
There was no answer at school offices Tuesday. Skief's lawyer, Gregory P. Miller, did not return a call or e-mail for comment.
Edward Hanko, the special agent in charge of the FBI in Philadelphia, said the theft "taught Philadelphia's kids a harsh lesson about unmitigated greed."