Couple who ran Varnett Charter Schools for 7 years stole $4.4 million

By Aaron Barker - Senior Digital Editor, Andy Cerota - Anchor/Reporter, Keith Garvin - Anchor/Reporter

HOUSTON - A husband and wife who ran Varnett Charter Schools for seven years stole $4.4 million in funds that were supposed to be used by the schools. 

“What the Cluffs did was use this set of charter schools as pass-throughs for their own financial gain,” said U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Patrick.

Federal prosecutors announced Tuesday that 69-year-old Alsie Cluff Jr. and his wife, 70-year-old Marian Cluff, pleaded guilty in 2017 to mail fraud and conspiracy to commit tax evasion charges in connection with the millions embezzled from the school between 2007 and 2014. 

“They nickel-and-dimed the parents on extra things, something here, something there, something extra on top of what the typical daily school schedule was,” Patrick said.

Patrick said that the Cluffs would charge parents for everything from special dress days for students to field trips to fundraisers and then funnel that money into an off-the-books account that was used for their personal expenses. 

"High-end clothing and jewelry and to furnish their million-dollar home,” Patrick said. 

In one case, Patrick said, the Cluffs threatened two employees with the loss of their jobs after they failed to meet a fundraising goal. Those employees were forced to come up with the $7,500 that was lacking.

"I'm glad of justice and justice was served," parent Jimmie Palmer said. "I know they know how it feels to grow up in a low poverty area. So why would you take from the less fortunate? If you take from the less fortunate it means you don't have a heart."

Patrick said investigators were able to seize enough assets to cover the money that was stolen and have returned about $1.9 million to the school, $1.8 million to the IRS and $100,000 to an insurance company that got caught up in the scheme.

VIDEO: Prosecutors discuss case

Parents of students who attended the school during the seven-year period will also receive about $110 per pupil per year of attendance, officials said. Using attendance records, prosecutors are sending letters to parents who were victimized, Patrick said. 

“We were able to get a judge to agree to this restitution to make these families as whole as possible, per student per year for all of these little fees here and there that the Cluffs took and put in their pocket,” Patrick said.

The two employees who were threatened with the loss of their jobs have also been paid back, Patrick said.

"You're taking from people that just obviously just really didn't have and you're upcoming from it, while we're still sinking to the bottom. We were already at the bottom," parent Lois Smith said. "Parents would provide the snacks and then they would turn around and sell it to the kids and the parents at field day. It's just heartless. No heart at all."

Marian Cluff is serving a 10-year prison term, while her husband is serving three years in prison.

"It feels good to get closure. We've been waiting quite some time for this," parent Shameka Chambers said. "You're juicing them and you're juicing them to the point where they're paycheck to paycheck."

The school is still in operation under a different board of directors, Patrick said. He noted that the Cluffs have not been involved in the school for quite some time.

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