OAKLAND — Robeson County native Benford “Ben” Chavis has told a federal court that he is not guilty on money laundering and mail fraud charges.
Arraigned on a six-count indictment, Chavis stood with attorney Ismail Ramsey in court on Friday and denied all the charges. The case has been continued until May 10 to give Chavis time to work with his attorney and examine the evidence the Department of Justice plans to use against him, according to court documents.
Chavis, a renowned educator, made waves in January when he injected himself into a local controversy concerning the firing of Tommy Lowry as superintendent of the Public Schools of Robeson County. The Board of Education, after firing Lowry, moved the same night to hire Virginia educator William Graves, but later retreated from that decision after a lawsuit and it became known the board violated its own policy to advertise the position.
Chavis at that time told a reporter with The Robesonian he helped orchestrate the coup, but later downplayed his involvement.
The school system is currently looking for its next superintendent.
Chavis’ indictment was released March 30. He is charged with crimes related to his work with American Indian Charter Schools in Oakland. Chavis was arrested in Robeson County, then released on a personal recognizance bond and given two weeks to appear in Oakland. Chavis will remain free because his bond terms were accepted by the California magistrate.
Chavis is alleged to have used federal grant money to lease properties to house three charter schools while he was in control of those schools from 2000 to 2012. 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 — and illegally benefited to the tune of more than $1.1 million, court documents charge. On grant applications, Chavis allegedly withheld information that he had any stake in the companies, which would be a crime.
The grant applications and leasing documents were signed by Chavis. 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 illegally. He would have to repay the money and relinquish any property purchased using the money if he is convicted. Federal money laundering charges carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $500,000. Mail fraud is a felony with a maximum term of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Chavis gained fame from his work with the American Indian Charter School in Oakland, authoring a book about his methods and appearing on national television shows. His work with the schools was once the focus of a segment on “60 Minutes.”
More recently he has run a summer math camp in Robeson County.
Reach Mike Gellatly at 910-816-1989 or via Twitter @MikeGellatly