A NC principal took coaches’ bribes to hide kids from ICE. Now she’s going to prison

A NC principal took coaches’ bribes to hide kids from ICE. Now she’s going to prison
A veteran Charlotte educator rigged the enrollment and immigration records of dozens of international students in return for bribes from basketball coaches and recruiters, court documents show. (Source: CNN)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Michael Gordon/The Charlotte Observer) - For five years, a veteran Charlotte educator rigged the enrollment and immigration records of dozens of international students in return for bribes from basketball coaches and recruiters, court documents show.

On Tuesday, none of those co-conspirators appeared beside Evelyn Mack. The founder, owner and schoolmaster at Evelyn Mack Academy was left to face the judge alone.

The 65-year-old Mack entered the courtroom in a wheelchair - in an August letter to U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn, her physician said Mack has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

When she was wheeled out, Mack was a federal inmate in waiting - sentenced by Cogburn to serve 18 months. She will report to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons at a later date.

Her crimes: Mack filed fraudulent immigration and enrollment paperwork to say that international student-athletes, many from Africa, were enrolled in her small private school on Monroe Road. Federal prosecutors say that qualified the students for visas to stay in the country and kept them off the radar of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, commonly known as ICE.

In actuality, the students were enrolled elsewhere at schools that, unlike Evelyn Mack Academy, did not qualify for the student-visa program.

For her efforts to mislead immigration authorities, prosecutors say Mack received bribes of $1,000 per student. In an affidavit that accompanied Mack’s arrest, ICE Special Agent Russell Vensk said the schoolmaster received kickbacks on some 75 students, many of them minors, starting in 2011.

In the wording of her indictment, the former Charlotte-Mecklenburg School’s middle-school teacher “agreed with others to conceal, harbor and shield from detection” international students “for the purpose of commercial advantage or financial gain.”

Mack was arrested in February 2018. As part of an agreement with federal prosecutors, she pleaded guilty to conspiracy to harbor aliens five months later.

None of Mack’s reputed co-conspirators, which prosecutors say include coaches and recruiters from inside and outside the country, are named in the hundreds of pages of federal documents filed in the case.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Smith told Cogburn on Tuesday that the investigation remains ongoing. A spokeswoman for the federal prosecutors’ office in Charlotte said she could not comment further.

Mack’s attorney, James Exum of Charlotte, did not respond to an Observer email seeking comment.

‘GIVEN SO MUCH’

Friends say Mack dreamed for years of having a school that could help students who were struggling in traditional classrooms. When Evelyn Mack Academy opened in 2011 it was approved to take part in the Department of Homeland Security’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program.

As principal, Mack had the authority to issue the paperwork that would allow foreign national students to attend her school full-time and obtain student visas. Mack was also responsible for maintaining student records in a federal database so authorities could ensure the students were meeting the requirements of their visas.

Over a five-year period Mack reported that 75 international students were fully enrolled in her school. In fact, none of them were. The academy closed in 2017.

Catherine Kearney, a retired CMS special-needs counselor who met Mack 25 years ago, said in a letter to Cogburn that Mack allowed Kearney’s daughter to take the academy’s summer math class even though Kearney could not afford to pay full tuition.

“She has given so much to the students for so long,” Kearney said. “Please grant her immunity from prosecution. She could be most helpful by serving society rather than being incarcerated.”

Peggy Johnson, Mack’s mentor when she was assigned to teach at Albemarle Road Middle School in the early 1990s, said the charges against her “seem totally out of character.” The Mack she described spent her own money school supplies and teacher’s salaries.

“She has always worked for the betterment of her students,” Johnson wrote.

Prosecutors say differently: Mack is going to prison because she put students’ interest aside and worked for the financial betterment of herself.