The founder and director of a now-defunct South Los Angeles charter campus and her son pleaded not guilty this week to funneling $200,000 from the school to a shell company she controlled.
Kendra Uzoma Okonkwo, 51, and Jason Chiazom Okonkwo, 29, are charged with one felony count each of misappropriation of public funds, grand theft by embezzlement, money laundering and keeping a false account.
Defense attorneys requested that their clients be released without having to post bail given their lack of any prior criminal record and the fact that they are accused of a non-violent crime.
Kendra Okonkwo’s attorney said her client is a foster parent to two children and responsible for the care of her 75-year-old husband, who has some medical issues.
But Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark Hanasono denied the request.
“The amount of loss is significant in this case,” Hanasono said before setting bail at $145,000 for each defendant.
The pair were ordered to return to court on June 13, when a date is expected to be set for a preliminary hearing to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to proceed to trial.
The elder Okonkwo founded Wisdom Academy for Young Scientists more than a decade ago, but stopped working at the charter campus after it was determined that she had a conflict of interest because she also owned the building, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.
Deputy District Attorney Dana Aratani alleges that just over $200,000 was transferred from the school—which ceased operations in June 2015—between January 2012 and March 2014 to a shell company set up by Kendra Okonkwo.
Her son is accused of approving fake invoices for school supplies and food from the alleged shell company. He worked at the time as the school’s director of operations, according to Aratani.
The money was deposited into the company’s account, then transferred into Kendra Okonkwo’s personal bank account, the prosecutor alleged.
An audit of the school to investigate possible fraud determined that money was being received by a business that “did not appear to be legitimate,” according to the criminal complaint.
“District Attorney investigators and auditors obtained and reviewed the bank records of OSE Development Corporation and Kendra Okonkwo and found that the money that went into OSE Business Services was then transferred into the credit union account of Kendra Okonkwo for the payment of her American Express bill,” the complaint alleges.
“The connection of Kendra Okonkwo to OSE Business Services was kept from the Los Angeles County (Office) of Education as Kendra Okonkwo was precluded from employment with the school,” according to the complaint.
The mother and son could face up to six years and eight months in state prison if convicted as charged.