By Mariecar Mendoza, Staff Writer, la dAILY nEWS | http://bit.ly/Za3FJa
3/01/2013 08:02:29 PM PST :: A jury trial began Friday for a Tarzana couple who stand accused of misusing more than $200,000 in funds from the Ivy Academia charter schools they founded.
Eugene Selivanov, 40, and his wife, 36-year-old Tatyana Berkovich, are standing trial in the downtown Los Angeles courthouse on accusations that they used school funds, which included public money, on lavish spending for their personal expenses.
Selivanov was executive director while Berkovich served as president and founder of Ivy Academia, which has 1,100 students on three campuses in Canoga Park, Chatsworth and Woodland Hills.
"The defendants did not live by the rules," said Los Angeles County Assistant Deputy District Attorney Sandi Roth.
But Jeff Rutherford, who represents Selivanov, argued that both his client and his wife, parents of three children, acted in good faith and were fueled by a passion to provide the best education in the district.
"This was about two parents who wanted to improve education for their children and for the children in their community," Rutherford said.
Rutherford and Nina Marino, who represents Berkovich, emphasize that the couple faced challenges when they opened Ivy Academia that often led to some blunders, attributed to inexperience but nothing that reached the level of fraud.
"I'm not going to kid you, there were mistakes made," Marino told the jury.
"There were no do's and don'ts of how to spend ... There wasn't a list that said, `OK, you're opening up a charter school so these are the 10 things you need.' There was nothing like that."
After opening statements by both sides, prosecutor Dana Aratani called Aaron Eairleywine to the witness stand. Eairleywine, the first of more than 100 listed witnesses for both sides, is the central business advisor for LAUSD's Charter Schools Division.
He is expected to continue testimony next week.
The business-oriented school for K-12 students received its charter in 2004 from the Los Angeles Unified School District. But before the school even opened it was scrutinized and in its first years was riddled with controversy, including questions about enrollment practices and the alleged practice of inflating attendance numbers to boost state funding.
After an audit in 2007 by LAUSD's Office of Inspector General raised concerns about comingling of funds between the nonprofit charter and for-profit groups affiliated with Ivy Academia, a 2008 investigation focused on Selivanov and Berkovich was launched. That investigation alleged that the couple used school funds for various personal items including groceries, clothes, gift cards and a CD set on "how to avoid paying taxes," according to court documents.
In 2010, the couple were charged with 38 criminal felony and misdemeanor counts that included alleged misuse of public funds, embezzling and money laundering.
A dozen charges were dropped last summer, but Selivanov still faces 26 felony counts that include embezzlement, money laundering and filing false tax returns while Berkovich is charged with 11 similar felonies.
If convicted, Selivanov may spend up 17 years in state prison while Berkovich may get up to 10 years in state prison, Roth said.
Selivanov and Berkovich declined to comment.
"The prosecution is a full blown miscarriage of justice," Marino said.
"This case is fueled by a fundamental lack of understanding of the functioning of a charter school and the deplorable lack of proper investigation by the authorities."
Ivy Academia Charter School has continued operating since Selivanov and Berkovich were placed on paid administrative leave in 2010. The couple voluntarily resigned in 2011 and have severed ties with the school, though one of their three children still attends Ivy Academia.
The school remains among the best schools in California with the highest state standardized test scores - a fact that Berkovich boasted of during a break on Friday. Its charter was re-authorized in 2008 by the district for a five-year term.