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Former PA Cyber CEO Nick Trombetta gets 20 months in prison for tax fraud

Megan Guza
| Tuesday, July 24, 2018, 12:45 p.m.

Five years after a grand jury indicted Nick Trombetta on charges of tax evasion and conspiracy, the founder and former CEO of the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School was sentenced to 20 months in federal prison, ending a saga that saw Trombetta fall from education pioneer to convicted felon.

“In the end, I failed,” Trombetta, 63, said Tuesday before U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti handed down the sentence. “I let a lot of people down, but I am here today to try to set things right.”

Trombetta and his attorneys proposed a sentence of house arrest and community service at Trails Ministry in Beaver County, a nonprofit that helps felons transition back to life outside. Trombetta had already been volunteering there.

In making that pitch, Trombetta’s attorneys stressed his willingness to take responsibility for his actions and claimed that he never once tried to blame anyone else.

Trombetta pleaded guilty in August 2016 to conspiring to defraud the Internal Revenue Service from collecting income taxes, siphoning $8 million from the charter school he created to spend on houses, a plane and other luxuries.

Trombetta professed his “sincere remorse” and reiterated the plea for house arrest and community service to “continue to help this community in any way I can,” he said.

“I truly believe, your honor, that my best life’s work is in front of me,” he said. “I am deeply sorry for what I have done.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney James Wilson called Trombetta’s crime an abuse of power and public trust. He said Trombetta’s case must act as a deterrent for other public officials. Flowers cited those factors in handing down her sentence, which included three years of probation following his release, as well as community service.

Several others were caught up in the scandal at the state’s largest cyber charter school, which had an enrollment of more than 9,700 in the 2016-17 school year, according to state data. A former accountant there, 62-year-old Neal Prence, was sentenced earlier this month to one year and one day in federal prison in connection with the conspiracy.

Trombetta became superintendent of Midland Borough School District in 1995. Before he arrived, the district closed its high school because of declining enrollment and began busing its students to Ohio because surrounding Beaver County districts wouldn’t take them. Midland became Pennsylvania’s only public school district to send its students out of state for an education.

When the state began allowing charter schools to operate, Trombetta jumped at the opportunity to create one in Midland.

“All we wanted to do was help some of our kids locally,” Trombetta said in 2000 when PA Cyber was founded.

The concept drew criticism from some leaders in traditional school districts — including ones that had refused to accept Midland students — because state law required the districts to pay PA Cyber thousands of dollars for each child enrolled in the charter school who resided in their districts.

With lower overhead than traditional schools, the money that flowed into PA Cyber helped Trombetta build an empire that would grow to include spinoff enterprises such as the former National Network of Digital Schools, a nonprofit founded in 2005 to offer curriculum and management services, and the Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School, which today has an enrollment of more than 700.

By the time Trombetta left his role with PA Cyber in 2012, it had more than 11,000 students, eight offices and a budget of more than $100 million.

Megan Guza is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 412-380-8519, mguza@tribweb.com or via Twitter @meganguzaTrib.

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