My Seth Andrew story — a thief who got caught

Seth Andrew
Seth Andrew stealing funds in November 2019 (photo obtained from bank surveillance footage by Melody Shen, Special Agent, Federal Bureau of Investigation)

This is the story of how I met a silver-tongued thief named Seth Andrew, and how he wreaked havoc on a host of lives in my community until the FBI caught him stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from charter schools he founded and a federal court sentenced him to jail.

I meet Seth Andrew

I first met Seth on May 28, 2020, the day it was announced his non-profit had purchased the former Marlboro College campus. We “met” in a conversation on a public Facebook group for Marlboro College alumni. (I was a professor at the school for ten years.) He said he would use it for a new college, “Degrees of Freedom“, which “students from disenfranchised communities” would be able to attend for free.

I have decades of experience working with non-profits and it was easy for me to research the public financials of his two relevant non-profits, Democracy Builders and Democracy Builders Fund. What I found was unusual. Neither non-profit had recently filed timely 990 returns as required by law. And the older returns available showed no conceivable financial resources to handle the approximately one million dollars of annual operating outgoings needed to maintain the 550-acre college campus.

I wondered if the late filings had been an oversight. So during our first meeting, I asked him.

The resulting conversation is still available here, with one important change. Seth subsequently deleted all his comments from it. Here’s the original screenshot of our interchange.

Seth Andrew conversation

As you can see, Seth is extraordinarily evasive about my simple questions. He keeps trying to change the subject. Finally, he says, “I don’t think we’re going to be much more productive here, so I’m going to log off.”

At this point, it was clear to me that Seth Andrew was hiding something.

Despite serious concerns, the campus sale goes through

During the next couple of weeks, Seth Andrew was the subject of allegations of racism by Black N Brown at DP, a group of Democracy Prep students, alumni, and present/former staff of color. The group claimed that Andrew and the schools he founded had built an education system rife with systemic racism and manipulative behavior toward people of color.

The Marlboro Selectboard called on the Marlboro College Board of Trustees to investigate these allegations and the Marlboro Alumni Council condemned Andrew and called for the sale of the college to be canceled. Despite the accusations, the Marlboro College Board of Trustees announced they would proceed with the sale.

The sale of the Marlboro College campus still had to be reviewed and approved by the Vermont Attorney General, TJ Donovan. On June 18, 2020, I and five other Marlboro long-time residents sent a letter to TJ Donovan, detailing our concerns, with special emphasis on his lack of financial resources to maintain the campus in good condition.

Although our concerns turned out to be valid, TJ Donovan failed to take them seriously and, on July 20, 2020, approved the sale of the Marlboro College campus to Democracy Builders.

Seth Andrew moves to Marlboro

At this point, we didn’t know that Seth had stolen the money that his non-profit, Democracy Builders Fund, needed to buy the campus. In the summer he moved into town, living in one of the campus properties. What ensued was a nightmare for the inhabitants of the Town of Marlboro, Vermont, which continued long after his arrest in April 2021. Someone could write a book about the bizarre consequences. Here are some of them…

No, we own the campus!

On January 21, 2021, the day before the Marlboro Music Festival would have had the right of first refusal to buy the campus, Seth “sold” the campus to Adrian Stein a secretive Canadian cryptocurrency creator. A month later, he claimed he still owned it. Why Seth did this remains a mystery. I suspect he made the sale when he realized there was no way he could finance ongoing campus operational expenses.

The consequences were disastrous. Both parties subsequently said they owned the property. It became impossible for the Marlboro Music Festival, a town fixture since 1951 with a 99-year lease to use the campus each summer, to know to whom to pay rent. Meanwhile, DBF was unable to pay maintenance costs on the campus. This forced the Marlboro Music Festival to go to court and work out an expensive agreement to take charge of the campus after Seth’s arrest.

This land is my land. This land’s not your land.

For hundreds of years, Vermont law has permitted hunting, fishing, hiking, and mountain biking on private property without permission unless the land is legally posted. Though Marlboro College’s 550 acres of land has never been posted, and its 17 miles of trails enjoyed by all for decades, Seth had angry confrontations with people whom he met while walking in the woods, telling them they were not welcome on his property.

Meanwhile, Seth rented the campus to a fencing camp for a week. He told them they were welcome to use a beach at a popular spot in Marlboro, South Pond, despite the fact that all the pond’s beaches are private or members only. Seth did not ask permission from the nonprofit conservation organization, the Ames Hill – Marlboro Community Center which owns the conserved areas of the pond, and ignored a request to do so. After complaints about the fencing camp participants taking over the town beach, Seth ‘told town officials that he and his team will “not be bullied or engage with anyone who continues the unfounded and xenophobic attacks on us or anyone not from Marlboro.”’

Tenure at Democracy Prep

Seth tried to get the local public elementary school to move to the campus, presumably to help prop up his worsening finances. For some reason, perhaps because of the previously mentioned allegations of racism tied to his tenure at Democracy Prep, he lied publicly about his involvement with Democracy Prep, telling the Marlboro School Board on June 29, 2020, that he “left in 2013”. (There’s a recording of him saying this.) In reality, Democracy Prep paid Seth more than $400,000 between 2015 and 2017.

I attended the school board meeting where Seth made his pitch, and pled with the board members not to trust Seth. (The only occasion I met with him face to face.) I don’t know if my plea made any difference, but luckily, as it turned out, the board decided not to move the school to the campus under Seth’s ownership.

Degrees of Freedom isn’t free

Meanwhile, despite multiple proclamations to the contrary, Seth’s Degrees of Freedom college program never seriously applied for any accreditation, a basic requirement to allow students to participate in federal financial aid programs. Without accreditation-based financial aid, Seth’s entire pitch for a college that students from disenfranchised communities could attend for free turned out to be an imaginative fantasy. The staff Seth chose to run the program were quickly out of a job once Seth’s arrest became public.

I could go on

We’ll never know what other fantastic developments would have happened because, on April 27, 2021, the U.S. Government made a bombshell announcement.

The FBI arrests Seth

On April 27, 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the arrest of Seth Andrew for stealing $218,005 belonging to the State of New York from three Democracy Prep escrow bank accounts between March 2019 and October 2019. (The stolen money was not private funding for Democracy Prep’s network of charter schools.) Seth moved the funds through a series of personal accounts, and finally, by his own admission “transferred all of the funds to an account of Democracy Builders Fund” the day before Democracy Builders Fund purchased the former Marlboro College campus for $225,000.

I finally understood how disconcerting it must have been to Seth on May 28, 2020, when I started our conversation by asking about the missing financials for his non-profits, just after he had used the stolen money to purchase the campus.

Democracy Builders removed Seth as board chair. The remaining Degrees of Freedom staff, after initially saying the program would still move forward, left the Marlboro campus shortly afterward.

The wheels of justice

[Seth’s court dockets can be accessed here and here.]

In January 2022, Seth pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud and agreed to an advisory sentencing guideline range of 21 – 27 months. He agreed to repay the money he had stolen, plus some additional fees.

Seth made several requests to adjourn his sentencing date, which the court finally set as July 29, 2022. On July 24, Seth sent a submission to the court arguing that he should serve no jail time. In response, numerous submissions by the prosecutors, defense, and various other parties (including yours truly) followed.

On July 29, Seth received a sentence of 366 days in jail. Here is a transcript of Seth’s sentencing by the honorable John D. Cronan, U.S. District Court judge with the Southern District of New York.

Although it isn’t mentioned in the above transcript, Judge Cronan added a special condition of supervision following Seth’s release from jail: that Seth participates in an outpatient mental health treatment program.

Two remaining mysteries

1—Why was Democracy Builders’ million-dollar Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) payout for 270 claimed workers given to just 41 workers?

On May 1, 2020, Seth’s Democracy Builders Fund received a loan of $943,365 in federal COVID relief funds. As journalists C.B. Hall and Lola Duffort subsequently documented [1, 2], the application from Democracy Builders Fund, described as an “S corporation” [it isn’t] with an address in San Francisco (!), reported that the loan would support 270 jobs.

Here’s an excerpt from C.B. Hall’s article:

The compensation provided under the [$943,365] loan was considerable. The funds were used in a period of less than six months, from May 1 to October 16, 2020, according to documentation obtained by VBM. The accounting states that several employees received more than $40,000 during that period, with Andrew, then DBF’s guiding figure, getting paid almost $46,000…

The accounting lists 41 employees paid through the loan. Total cash compensation to them exceeded the $943,365 loan amount by about $39,000…

The source told VBM that the list included every employee paid with the first loan, and described it as “a fact” that DBF did not have the payroll it was claiming.

“There were not 270 jobs saved,” the individual said. A second source familiar with the matter, who likewise requested anonymity, had no knowledge of any affected employees beyond the 41 accounted for.

Both sources told VBM that approximately 30 of the 41, although employees of DBF, were in practice working on programs at an organization called VoteAmerica.

The California secretary of state’s database lists VoteAmerica, which works to encourage voting, as a nonprofit located at the contact address that DBF used in its loan application. VoteAmerica was at the time described as a project of DBF on the latter’s website; as a tax-exempt nonprofit, DBF served as VoteAmerica’s fiscal sponsor until the latter subsequently acquired its own tax exemption under the IRS code, and it no longer receives any mention on the website.

VBM’s research indicated that about 10 of the 41 were DBF’s own workers, whether in Marlboro or at the organization’s office in New York City. DBF does not appear anywhere in the California secretary of state’s database.

Citing policy against discussing client matters, Insperity group account manager Elaine Matthews declined to respond to an inquiry seeking clarifications as to the more than 200 jobs not accounted for.

How come the almost $1 million in federal COVID relief funds was spent on jobs for just 41 workers, rather than the 270 claimed in the PPP application?

We may never know.

2—Why have Marlboro College’s Campus Working Group and Board of Trustees never explained or apologized for their clear negligence to perform due financial diligence on Seth’s non-profits?

When the Marlboro College Board of Trustees (BoT) decided that the college had to close, the board set up a Campus Working Group (CWG) to solicit and evaluate potential purchasers for the campus. The CWG was led by four BoT members and also included alumni, college faculty & staff & students, and the head of the Marlboro Town Selectboard. All CWG members had to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA).

As I’ve documented above, a glance at the Democracy Builders and Democracy Builders Fund public financials showed these entities had never had any significant capital resources. They had not filed recent non-profit 990s as required by law. And when I asked Seth about these basic financial necessities on Facebook, it was evident that he was extremely uncomfortable with my questions, kept trying to change the subject, and eventually refused to engage further.

It took me an hour to uncover these issues, which should have quashed Seth’s bid for the campus. Perhaps Seth told the CWG that he had bags of money available from another source. If so, the CWG & BoT should have carefully verified that this was true before selling the campus to Seth. We now know that Seth had no significant funds available to him at all, as he admitted in a statement to the court that he used all the money he stole from Democracy Prep to buy the campus!

If I, with no formal accounting background, could uncover such damning information about Seth’s financial resources so quickly, why on earth couldn’t the CWG & BoT have done the same? The only reasonable conclusion is that the CWG & BoT were grossly negligent in performing due financial diligence on Seth’s non-profits.

I’m frankly mystified why not a single member of the CWG or BoT has ever come forward to explain why they believed that selling the campus to Seth was a sound financial idea. Or apologize for putting this community—especially the town of Marlboro which suddenly had a thief and liar owning Potash Hill, and the Music Festival that had to sort out the resulting mess at great expense—through hell. There’s no reason why these folks can’t speak out now. Yes, CWG members signed an NDA, but there’s no one now left to sue them if they ignore it!

Even when Seth Andrew was indicted, the BoT said nothing. All that Richard Saudek [the chair of the BoT and, from 1977-1981, of the Vermont Public Service Board] would say is that trustees “are watching this situation unfold and were alarmed when they learned about the indictment.”

It’s late, but not too late to do the right thing, CWG and BoT members.

Closing thoughts

A couple of miscellaneous bits of information that don’t fit neatly in the above screed:

“I met Seth a few years later, when he reached out to me and gave me a tour of one of his co-located charter schools in Harlem.

I found him an intriguing character, obsessively throwing a rubber ball against the wall while we walked through the halls of the school, and never taking off his baseball hat though the network had a rigid dress code for students, who were forbidden to wear hats, wear the wrong color socks or the wrong kind of belt. When we were touring the school, he stopped one student in the hall and berated her for having her Uggs showing. I wondered how long he would last at his own charter school before being suspended or pushed out.”

Seth Andrew is a smart and talented guy. He’s also a thief and a convicted felon. It’s a shame that someone with his gifts has used them in such destructive ways. Fast-thinking silver-tongued folks like him can be dangerous members of society because they are so good at fooling people. I recommend Jerry Weinberg’s wise advice offered forty years ago:

Always trust your client—and cut the cards.

18 thoughts on “My Seth Andrew story — a thief who got caught

  1. This is terrifying. The mysteries you cited remain for me. Then too I know that many entities and individuals are not vetted. Something “sounds” or “feels” good and VOILA! the deal is struck. What a sad tale.

    1. Yes, it was a long saga. I feel good about seeing it through. In our world, this story highlights how lightly non-profits are regulated these days. The IRS doesn’t monitor their activities, and late financial filings are ignored for years. (One of Seth’s non-profits lost its status by non-filing and then automatically regained it by eventually filing the late returns.) Seth used his non-profits as a general purpose place for wheeling and dealing in all kinds of ventures (note the PPP loan for a completely unrelated organization).

      These kinds of shenanigans (another example is the Donald J. Trump Foundation) have the potential to give all non-profits a bad name.

  2. Thanks! No words can describe the sadness that the name Marlboro College is now associated with what can only be described as a lesson on what NOT to do! That said / thank you MMF for preserving the campus with some hope for the ideals Marlboro was founded on!

    1. I completely agree that the Marlboro Music Festival taking over the campus is the best possible outcome after some terribly incompetent decisions by the former Marlboro College Board of Trustees — decisions they have still tried to spin publicly in the best possible light after their lack of due diligence became obvious.

  3. Will this ever end? Today, Seth Andrew appealed his conviction and sentence.

    A reminder that Seth pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud felony in January and agreed to an advisory sentencing guideline range of 21 – 27 months. Two weeks before the trial, he filed a submission that he didn’t deserve any jail time. He got sentenced to 366 days.

    His appeal can be found here:

    1. An unexpected (at least by me) development in the Seth Andrew legal appeal of his conviction and sentence.

      Apparently, he has been at the Federal Correctional Institution in Otisville, NY, since September 22. In his court filing he says “Due to lack of funds, I am representing myself Pro Se.” And “While in federal custody, I have had limited access to the materials needed to prepare my appeal in the usual timeline.”

      He is requesting a 120-day extension of the deadline to file a brief in the appeal of his case.

      Here’s his court filing:

  4. Re-reading this again, it strikes me that the BoT and the CWG were hardly the only ones who failed the community. I connected with Diane Ravitch who had a long and contentious relationship with Seth (being on opposite sides of the charter school debate) and she helped us send emails to our local, state, and national legislators and state school board. If I listed the people we contacted again and again about this grifter, you wouldn’t even believe it. And, you’re right, the most frustrating part is the lack of any kind of acknowledgment when he was arrested. He maligned members of this community, including me. We saw him for what he was on day one. I’m still not over it.

  5. I don’t know why you hate this man, but he has done a lot of good and this is a very skewed perspective of the situation.

    1. I don’t hate Seth Andrew. He may have “done a lot of good” from your perspective, but the account above is a factual one and I am surprised that you support a man who:

      • is a fluent liar when it suits him;
      • attacks those who challenge him;
      • has used his gifts in such destructive ways; and
      • stole a large amount of public money.

    2. As an outsider to this I only know what I’ve seen written about it. So other views would be good to see also.

      So what good has he added to the community which they should be adding to these discussions?

    3. I agree with you, Ruth.

      Adrian Segar, thank you for linking to the Judge’s sentencing statement.

      Having read it, and seeing the positive impact he had on so many, I would have sentenced him to no more than one month, served on weekends.

  6. Wow I went to DPCS as a student in NYC and the money was taken from us to pay for his condo home. You were nit letting up on him and this is what we need in our community… people like you to lay it out and expose him. You made him studder and delete everything because when you are dishonest yu must hide right. I am so sad he was doing this to us while I was attending the school. He served one year and a day for this? wow. thank you again!

        1. John, I believe “RRM” is not a jail but the office that tracks convicted folks like Seth who are appealing their sentences pre-jail. So I don’t think Seth is currently in jail. His appeal motion’s address is listed as “370 Central Park West, NY, NY 10025”, a 1918 coop overlooking Central Park with a full-time doorman.

  7. I am still in awe

    Please, I would love to connect with you….. I was a student of democracy prep charter school from 6th grade to grade 11 I left around 2013. Please e-mail me.

  8. UPDATE: Seth Andrew has served his 366-day sentence, with time off for good behavior. He reported to Otisville Federal Correctional Institution on September 22, 2022, and about six months ago was transferred to a halfway house, from which he was released on May 15, 2023.

    The Feds have now filed a motion to dismiss his appeal of his sentence to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The 41-page motion is interesting in that it provided the most detail yet on the criminal acts Seth performed. In particular:

    • The motion describes how on May 20, 2020, Andrew transferred ~$210,000 from the money he stole to a Democracy Builders operating account. The next day, the Democracy Builders operating account sent a $225,000 wire deposit for the purchase of the Marlboro College campus. From the motion: “The timing of the transfers indicates the stolen funds were used by Andrew to fund this down payment.” I pointed out in a letter to the Court for his January trial in 2022 how Andrew used the money he stole to buy Potash Hill, but this is the first time I’ve seen the Feds include this finding in a legal document.

    • The motion points out that Andrew pled guilty to wire fraud on January 14, 2022. The Plea Agreement that he agreed to allowed him to receive a sentence way below the 21- 27 months calculated from Federal sentencing guidelines. In that Agreement, he said that he would not “file a direct appeal; nor bring a collateral challenge … of any sentence within or below the Stipulated Guidelines Range of 21 to 27 months’ imprisonment,” and he waived “any and all right to withdraw his plea or to attack his conviction, either on direct appeal, or collaterally, on the ground that the Government has failed to produce any discovery material”. He also admitted in court that he had stolen the money and “represented to bank employees that I was authorized to transfer these funds. I’m truly sorry for what I have done” and “his “actions caused harm to Democracy Prep public schools in ways that I deeply regret. ”Andrew continued that he was “solely accountable for the decision to transfer the funds the government identified.”

    • The motion then goes into the legal reasons why Andrew’s “three arguments: (1) that his wire-fraud conviction was premised on an improper right-to-control theory; (2) that the District Court incorrectly considered at sentencing a non-economic harm to the victim; and (3) that the Government withheld Brady material” do not hold water and so his appeal should be dismissed. It includes a copy of the Plea Agreement that Andrew signed on January 14, 2022.

    Seth Andrew is currently a convicted felon who has served his sentence. The motion to dismiss his appeal of his sentence was sent to him at his penthouse apartment at 370 Central Park West in Manhattan, so I assume he’s living large again. Let’s hope he doesn’t cause any more trouble.

    You can read the motion here:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *