Hopi school staff members arrested on allegation of Social Security fraud

Oct 4, 2016 by and

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The administrator and a teacher at Hopi Mission School were arrested by federal agents Sept. 27 in Kykotsmovi, Ariz. It is another link in a chain of legal issues the school has experienced since at least 2013.

Superintendent/administrator Thane Epefanio and his wife, Michelle Epefanio, a teacher at the school, were arrested on a complaint alleging Social Security fraud. The Hopi Tutuveni confirmed school was called off Sept. 28. As of Oct. 4, daily phone calls to the office found only a busy signal.

The Epefanios had an initial appearance Sept. 30 in U.S. District Court in Flagstaff. Court documents refer to one or more counts of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. The counts allege crimes that took place while Epefanio was administrator at HMS, beginning in 2009 before the couple worked at the school and continuing until December 2015.

The criminal complaint alleges the couple submitted false documents to the government in an effort to conceal Michelle Epefanio’s employment history.

She applied for Social Security disability insurance in 2009, claiming an inability to work. In 2014 she applied for a driver’s license, claiming no disabilities.

A Social Security agent testified in an affidavit that HMS paid her between 2011 and 2014, simultaneous to her receiving Social Security disabilities payments for her inability to work.

The affidavit stated that in interviews, the couple said Michelle Epefanio was an HMS volunteer, not a teacher. A review of HMS personnel files showed the school paid her $65,758.84 between 2011 and 2014.

The Epefanios came to HMS in 2011 as teachers. Thane Epefanio took on the duties of principal in 2012, later becoming administrator/superintendent.

This isn’t the first time Epefanio has garnered financial suspicion.

Court records from the state of Washington show at least five civil suits involving him as a defendant between 1994 and 2010.

HMS is part of Mennonite Church USA’s Mennonite Education Agency. MEA has been concerned about financial transparency, establishing a task force in 2014 to address administrative and financial activities at HMS after receiving increasing concerns.

On Sept. 14, 2015, MC USA filed a complaint with Navajo County (Ariz.) Superior Court asking that the school board be evicted from the property, in order to review documents regarding operations and finances. The school sits on land deeded to the General Conference Mennonite Church, a predecessor of MC USA.

The school did not cooperate with MC USA’s requests to review documents. Epefanio is also a member of the HMS board, which gave a Sept. 17, 2015, statement, also signed by HMS principal Rebecca Yoder, to MWR that said HMS “has no plans of allowing MC USA to take over finances and governance.”

“We continue to ask for prayer for all the persons involved,” MEA executive director Carlos Romero said in an MC USA news release, “and for the lives that are impacted by the ministry of the Hopi Mission School.”

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