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Educator allegedly embezzled up to $2.7M in funds earmarked for disadvantaged students

Pamela Strain, the founder of Lighthouse Christian Academy, is facing an FBI investigation for allegedly embezzling up to $2.7 million in federal funding and grants for student meals. (Image source: Lighthouse Christian Academy website screenshot)

A Chicago educator stands accused of stealing lunch money intended for disadvantaged children at her school.

Pamela Strain, 60, is facing an FBI investigation for allegedly embezzling up to $2.7 million in federal funding and grants for student meals. Instead of feeding the children, she allegedly used the money to pay for a lavish lifestyle, according to reports.

Strain is the founder of Lighthouse Christian Academy, a private, nonprofit school located in Lansing, Illinois, a suburban area south of Chicago.

Federal investigators suspect the money was used to pay for a home and other properties, three Mercedes Benz vehicles, and a Lincoln Navigator. Other alleged purchases include shopping sprees at Victoria’s Secret, Macy’s, and Bath & Body Works; a star-studded trip to Las Vegas, and luxury spa treatments, the Chicago Tribune reported.

Strain formerly worked for Chicago Public Schools, but was reprimanded by the school board for unsatisfactory conduct. She resigned from the district in March 2004 and shortly after opened Beacon Hill,  a school serving students in grades pre-kindergarten through eight.

The school operated in several different locations before being renamed Lighthouse Christian Academy. Beacon Hill filed for food program funding into 2017, "even though the school no longer existed and lost eligibility in 2012," the Chicago Tribune reported.

Signs of trouble

An account officer at MB Financial Bank became suspicious of the Beacon Hill school's  financial practices in March 2016, citing large cash withdrawals and checks made out to cash that were drawn from the school’s general operating fund. In the memo line for the checks, “food program” was listed. According to the affidavit, schools do not generally use cash for food programs.

The alleged irregularity led to the bank closing accounts related to Strain and the school.  When contacted by the bank, Strain reportedly said the money was related to food funding from the state of Illinois.

Matthew Whitaker, an operations consultant with the Illinois State Board of Education reportedly reviewed the school’s finances three times in 10 years. In a court filing, the  state reported finding  outdated equipment,  poor documentation of meal funding, severely outdated equipment, and no dedicated area to prepare meals. Strain blamed the matter on the bad bookkeeping habits of others, according to reports.

No charges filed

No charges have been filed in connection with the federal investigation. Michael Monico, Strain’s criminal defense attorney, denies that any funds were misused. He  maintains that  Strain and her family have used their own dollars to help keep the school going.

According to reports, Strain has struggled financially for some time. A suburban school district sued her over a building lease, she defaulted on a food serve contract and twice filed for bankruptcy.

Strain declined to comment when reporters arrived on her doorstep, the Chicago Tribune reported.

Christian Lighthouse Academy's mission statement is to prepare children "academically, socially and spiritually to compete with their global peers," according to its website.

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