Photo: Hopi Mission School superintendent Thane Epefanio, right, principal Rebecca Yoder, parent volunteers and sixth graders on a class trip to Las Vegas in 2012. —Hopi Mission School Newsletter The former superintendent of Hopi Mission School in Kykotsmovi, Ariz., was sentenced May 8 to two years in prison for embezzling money from the school. Epefanio pleaded guilty to money laundering and wire fraud. Court documents indicate he made the plea Nov. 13. “Beginning in 2012, Epefanio used his position and influence to embezzle school funds and also directed staff to provide him money to create the appearance that the funds were being used to operate the school,” said the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona in a release. “Epefanio obtained almost $1 million to support his gambling habit and to pay for personal expenses.” The Mennonite Education Agency member school’s relationship with Mennonite congregations and conferences stretches to the early 20th century with the former General Conference Mennonite Church. Mennonite Mission Network closed its service worker unit there in 2014 when a Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) task force convened to address mounting concerns about financial transparency and school administrators’ lack of cooperation with MEA. The school sits on land deeded to General Conference Mennonite Church, a predecessor of MC USA, by President Calvin Coolidge. Citing this, the denomination filed a legal complaint against the school’s board in 2015 asking that the board be evicted from the property so MEA could review documents. Federal investigators shared MC USA’s interest and removed multiple vehicles full of paperwork in 2016. Federal indictments alleging fraudulent activity by principals Rebecca Yoder and Anne Lowry were dismissed Feb. 6 and Hopi Mission School board treasurer Matthew Schneider March 27. U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesperson Cosme Lopez said the office had no additional comments on other related cases. No updates have been made about Epefanio and his wife, Michelle, being indicted by a grand jury in 2016 concerning Social Security fraud for allegedly not reporting her income as a full-time teacher at the school while she was collecting unemployment benefits. MEA executive director Carlos Romero said the sentencing brings to conclusion a very sad situation. “There have been many victims along the way,” Romero said. “First of all the students have suffered. The families have suffered. The church has suffered. The witness of the church has suffered. . . . I don’t gain any pleasure in seeing this, except to say it brings to conclusion a really sad case.” Though MEA was aware that Epefanio was working on a plea agreement with prosecutors, the MC USA agency is not familiar with the details of the agreement other than jail time. Romero doubts there will be restitution of substance for the school. “My understanding is that the court had determined that Thane really has absolutely no way to pay fines, so at this point if it would be anything, a fine would be more symbolic,” Romero said. In a Sept. 16, 2015, interview with Mennonite World Review, Epefanio disputed allegations of unethical or illegal activities at the school and accused MEA of demanding unnecessary authority of the school and its board. “They’ve tried to make me the bad guy. They’ve stated I have kept the board of directors from them, and that’s not true,” he said at the time. “. . . I think when you have two groups that are fighting over the right to run a school, one’s going to win and one isn’t, or both are going to lose.” U.S. District Judge Steven P. Logan waived a fine based on the finding that Epefanio did not have the ability to pay. Restitution is left to be determined. In exchange for Epefanio pleading guilty to one count each of wire fraud and money laundering, prosecutors moved to dismiss the remaining counts, including mail fraud. In addition to probation conditions following the two-year prison sentence, Judge Logan added special conditions prohibiting Epefanio from gambling and requiring him to participate in a mental health program focused on gambling addiction.
This article was originally published by The Mennonite