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 trust your gut

How to trust your gut
Three stories and a presentation about “How to trust your gut”.

1 • My gut meets Seth Andrew

Last week, I was about to begin an online presentation on “How to trust your gut” when a national story broke. Major news outlets (1, 2, 3) were reporting that Seth Andrew, founder of a national network of charter schools, had been arrested for allegedly stealing $218,000 from one of the schools: Democracy Prep.

Now it happens that I’ve had an intense set of community interactions with and about Seth Andrew over the last year. I first met him on Facebook on May 28, 2020, where he announced his non-profit, Democracy Builders, had purchased the Marlboro College campus where I taught for ten years.

That same day, it took me just thirty minutes to get a gut feeling that this man could not be trusted. I’ve worked in and with non-profits—in board member, volunteer, and consultant roles—for decades. When I asked Seth about Democracy Builders’ missing 990’s, the reports that every federally tax-exempt organization has to file with the IRS every year, he was clearly evasive and kept trying to change the subject. (In retrospect, now knowing that Seth is alleged to have stolen government funds the year before and transferred them to the exact non-profit I was asking about supplies a new perspective to his reactions.)

[Click on the image of our conversations below and scroll down to and expand my first post, to see Seth’s evasions in the public Facebook thread.]

how to trust your gut

I considered adding this illustrative tale into my presentation. But, with ten minutes until showtime and a promise that the talk would take fewer than 21 minutes, I reluctantly omitted this remarkable story about trusting my gut response to Seth Andrew.

Regardless, my presentation includes other personal stories about how trusting my gut has worked out for me.

2 • How to trust your gut

How did I come to be giving this presentation in the first place? Well, a couple of months ago, my friend, the warm and oh-so talented association maven Kiki L’Italien, invited her Association Chat community members to share anything they wanted to talk about — in just 21 minutes. While reading her invite, “How to trust your gut” somehow popped into my head. I’ve never spoken on this topic before. Nevertheless, trusting my gut, I immediately signed up for a presentation.

During the following weeks, I realized that I had some advice to impart about trusting one’s gut, and put together this presentation that you can now watch.

3 • When your gut leads you astray — the story of vaccine hesitancy

As I share in the presentation, sometimes it’s not a good idea to trust your gut. A good example of this is the current issue of vaccine hesitancy: folks delaying acceptance or refusal of vaccines despite the availability of vaccination services.

I’m not going go into much detail, except to point out that anecdotal stories often win out over facts. While personal stories can be a powerful modality for learning, the steps involved…

  1. Notice the important story.
  2. Capture the story.
  3. Tease out the meaning.

…as described in the post, can be misapplied.

Especially when the stories we hear are untrue.

The reality that…

  • getting the COVID-19 vaccine can protect you from getting sick and helps others in your community;
  • the fast development of COVID-19 vaccines did not corners on testing for safety and efficacy; and
  • side effects of COVID-19 vaccines are temporary

… has been hijacked by deeply held gut beliefs that are the heart of many people’s resistance to getting vaccinated.

For example, research has shown that “[vaccine] skeptics were much more likely than nonskeptics to have a highly developed sensitivity for liberty — the rights of individuals — and to have less deference to those in positions of power. Skeptics were also twice as likely to care a lot about the ‘purity’ of their bodies and their minds.

Such gut feelings can be very strong, and it’s hard to override them using facts and scientific findings.

Unfortunately, relying on such gut feelings and passing up opportunities to receive a COVID-19 vaccine can have deadly consequences. There are countless stories of COVID-19 deniers dying of COVID-19. Here are a few: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

Don’t ignore your gut feelings, but test their veracity!

My presentation includes suggestions on what to do to check the accuracy of your gut feelings.

How to trust your gut—the presentation

Last week, I went on Kiki’s show. In 20 minutes, I shared everything I’ve learned (so far) about how to trust your gut, how trusting your gut can change your life, how to get better at doing it…and when you shouldn’t.
How to trust your gutThe presentation includes illustrative personal stories, the four qualities you need in order to trust your gut, how to learn when you shouldn’t trust your gut and two things you can do about it, plus a section on avoiding getting “stuck”.

I hope you enjoy it!

Additional presentation resources

Finally, here are two resources I mention during the presentation for learning about the importance of our gut responses. These excellent books explain in detail why our feelings, rather than our cognition generally drive us to act.

What have you learned about trusting your gut? Do you have stories to share? Wisdom to add? Please let us know in the comments below!