Parents scammed by school to get back nearly $605,000

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Tuesday, April 16, 2019
Parents bilked by school to get back nearly $605,000
Some Houston families are getting a check after authorities say Varnett Charter Schools' founders scammed parents out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Some Houston parents can expect a check in the mail after the founders of a charter school were found guilty of a scheme to 'nickel and dime' families for things already paid for by the federal government.

The U.S. Attorney's Office announced Tuesday that families who attended Varnett Charter Schools, under the leadership of Alsie Cluff Jr. and Marian Cluff during a seven-year period, will receive $110.02 per student, per school year.

In all, 4,000 families can expect to see $604,889.79 in financial restitution as part of a $4.4 million restitution order.

U.S. Attorney Ryan Patrick said parents were asked to pay for things like field trips and resources, even the chance to wear street clothes to school on Fridays in lieu of uniforms.

The only problem: the federal government was already reimbursing or funding these items, Patrick said at a Tuesday afternoon press conference.

"This was a husband and wife that ran a set of charter schools, the Varnett Charter Schools, that they used as, in a sense, their own personal piggy bank," said Patrick.

Patrick said the Cluffs would pass through thousands of dollars from parents into an off-books account that was then converted to personal use.

Parents aren't the only ones who will see payback for the Cluffs' scheme. The IRS is expected to see $1.8 million in back taxes; $1.9 million will be returned to Varnett Charter Schools, which is under the leadership of a new board of directors; $7,400 in restitution will be given to two school employees targeted in the scheme; and an insurance company caught up in it all will get back $100,000.

Marian Cluff and Alsie Cluff Jr. were sentenced to 10 and 3 years in prison respectively on June 15, 2018.

As part of the restitution order against the Cluffs, a "very nice house" on Houston's south side, a ranch, and farm equipment were seized and sold at auction.

The Texas Education Agency investigated the school in 2011 after Marian Cluff was accused of spending thousands of taxpayer dollars on Broadway shows, cruises and other travel.

Cluff was also accused of employing several family members who were seated on the school's board.