LUMBERTON — Benford “Ben” Chavis, the educator who caused a stir in January when he claimed to have led an effort that resulted in the firing of the superintendent of the local school system, has been indicted by a federal grand jury on six counts of money laundering and mail fraud related to his work with American Indian Charter Schools in Oakland, Calif.
Chavis is charged with three counts of money laundering and three counts of mail fraud, and, according to the court documents, benefited to the tune of more than $1.1 million.
According to the documents, while in control of three charter schools, Chavis used federal grant money to lease properties to house the schools. These properties were owned or leased by companies he controlled, which is an illegal conflict of interest, according to the indictment. When Chavis’ companies leased properties to the schools, he charged a substantially higher rent — as much as $15,000 a month on one property. On grant applications, Chavis allegedly withheld that he had any stake in the companies, which would be a crime.
The grant applications and leasing documents were signed by Chavis. In one case a lease specifies “all correspondence and business activities shall take place with the lessor and Dr. Ben Chavis exclusively.” Sending these documents, which the Department of Justice believes Chavis knew to be illegal, constitutes the mail fraud charges.
The indictment states that Chavis gained $1,137,220 by illegal means; if he is convicted, he would have to repay the money and relinquish any property purchased using the money. Federal money laundering charges carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and up to a $500,000 fine. Mail fraud is a felony with a maximum term of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The indictments and an arrest warrant were filed March 21 in Oakland, but were kept under seal until after 5 p.m. today for fear that “disclosure … may cause the subject of the indictment to flee, destroy evidence or conceal ongoing criminal activity,” court documents state.
The three schools Chavis’ charges relate to are the American Indian Public Charter School, the American Indian Public High School, and the American Indian Public Charter School II, all in the Oakland, Calif area.
Chavis was arrested today and transported to Wilmington to appear before U.S. Magistrate Robert Jones Jr.
It was determined that Chavis would not be able to pay for an attorney so he will be appointed a federal public defender. The charges stem from alleged illegal activity from the Northern District of California, where the proceedings will take place. He was released on a personal recognizance bond.
Chavis, a native and resident of Robeson County, gained renown as an educator for his tenure with the charter schools. He once appeared on “60 Minutes” and shared the story of how he said he was able to get at-risk students to succeed. He also runs a camp in Robeson County which stresses math.
His return to the spotlight in Robeson County began in January when he claimed to orchestrate the firing of Public Schools of Robeson County Superintendent Tommy Lowry and the attempt by six members of the school board to replace him with Virginia-based educator Thomas Graves. The Board of Education attempted to hire Graves but rescinded that action after a lawsuit was filed and it was deemed to have violated the board’s hiring policy.
The system is currently looking for a superintendent, and Graves has indicated previously he would apply for the position.