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.

How to facilitate a community discussion using fishbowl

What’s the best way to facilitate a community discussion? Recently, I had to answer that question at short notice. My task: design and facilitate a two-hour community discussion in response to a bombshell announcement made by the largest employer in my tiny rural hometown of Marlboro, Vermont.

[Update: Want to know how to do this online? See this post!]

The community was in shock. Consequently, I felt it was important to use a discussion format that:

  • Supported respectful dialog from a variety of constituencies;
  • Created an environment that was as safe as possible for people to share;
  • Minimized the likelihood that people would monopolize the meeting;
  • Allowed both short statements and controlled impromptu conversations; and
  • Was efficient.

I ended up designing (and moderating the first half of) a fishbowl format. To be more precise, I used what I’d call “half a fishbowl sandwich“: an opening pair share plus a standard fishbowl. (All three of these techniques are covered in detail in my latest book Event Crowdsourcing: Creating Meetings People Actually Want and Need.)

The pair share

I ran a one-minute-per-partner pair share with this question. “What do you think about the proposed Marlboro College plan to close down the school and transfer the endowment and campus to Emerson?

The fishbowl format

Now, watch this three-minute meeting video clip in which I explain how fishbowl works.

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