Ex-charter school head sentenced to 3 years in prison

Posted: February 12, 2014

MASAI SKIEF, former head of the Harambee Institute of Science and Technology Charter School, could have followed in his father's footsteps as a pillar in the community.

But he blew it.

Skief, 32, pleaded guilty last year to stealing $88,000 from the West Philadelphia charter school and its related nonprofit, the Harambee Institute, both founded by his father, the late John Skief.

Even after Masai Skief signed a guilty-plea agreement, he continued to use the Harambee Institute's debit card 48 times, stealing an additional $12,500.

Yesterday, U.S. District Judge Paul Diamond sentenced Skief to three years in federal prison followed by three years of supervised release, within the range of what prosecutors sought.

Upon hearing the sentence, his mother, Tonya Skief, and a sister wept in the packed courtroom, where about 40 supporters sat.

Skief, with shortly cropped hair, dressed in a forest-green prison jumpsuit, told the judge that he had not understood "what exactly I did" until he was preparing for his sentencing hearing.

"I went through spells of ignorance and deflection and even some arrogance leading up to the time when I finally got it, and it finally clicked what I was doing and how it affected everybody that I felt was depending on me," he said.

His voice cracking, Skief apologized to the Harambee community, his family, friends, the judge and the government.

Skief's supporters did not give statements in court, but stood when defense lawyer Gregory P. Miller asked them to show the judge that they will support Skief after he serves his sentence. The judge said he received "numerous letters in support" of Skief.

First Assistant U.S. Attorney Louis Lappen told the judge that Skief took "money from children . . . to support his lifestyle."

Skief snatched $9,000 from a scholarship fund in his dad's name to use as down payment on a house for himself. He also stole some of the money to buy "men's clothing, gas and repair services for his car, flowers for a female subordinate, and a hotel room for his girlfriend," the government said in a sentencing memo.

Skief, who was receiving a base salary of about $100,000 by August 2012 as head of the charter school, also got people to lie to the feds and to a grand jury when he knew that he was being investigated.

In the 1970s, John Skief co-founded the Harambee Institute to provide educational services and vocational training.

After the state passed the Charter School Act in 1997, John Skief founded the charter school, the state's first African-centered charter school.

Soon after his father died in December 2007 from a heart attack, Masai Skief, a teacher at the K-8 charter, took control of both the school and the related nonprofit.

The judge said that Skief showed "contempt for the law and a dramatic sense of entitlement demonstrated by his" repeated breaking of the law.

Skief signed a guilty-plea agreement in May. In August, he entered his guilty plea to two counts of wire fraud for embezzling the $88,000.

Prosecutors later found that between May and August, Skief used the nonprofit's debit card 43 times, stealing $11,823. Then, in the nine days after his guilty plea, he used it five times to steal about $749. "He stopped when there was no money," Lappen said.

The judge ordered that Skief not act in any administrative capacity at any charter school and not have anything to do with Harambee during his supervised release. He also ordered Skief to pay restitution of $88,000 to the nonprofit and to the scholarship fund.

On Twitter: @julieshawphilly

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