Education | Law

Hopi Tribe banishes non-Indian couple accused of federal fraud






Michelle Epefanio, far right, and Thane Epefanio, second from right, are accused of defrauding the federal government while they worked at a religious school on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona. Photo: Hopi Mission School

The Hopi Tribe of Arizona has banished a non-Indian couple who worked at a private religious school on the reservation, Mennonite World Review reports.

Thane Epefanio served as superintendent of the Hopi Mission School and his wife, Michelle, was a teacher. It was her work there that led to charges of federal fraud.

According to federal authorities, Michelle Epefanio was receiving Social Security payments because she claimed to be disabled. Yet she was "gainfully employed" at the school, an affidavit filed in court read.

The Facebook page for the school, as well as Michelle's personal page, indicated she was a "lead teacher" as far back as the fall of 2015, Hopi Tuteveni, the tribe's newspaper, reported after the Epefanios were arrested on September 27.

Hopi Mission School is not closing! It was nice to see all of the parental support last night for HMS, it's staff, the...

Posted by Hopi Mission School on Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Hopi Mission School on Facebook: Not Closing!

Classes at the school effectively shut down for the remainder of the year and the principal became unreachable, Mennonite World Review reported. But students returned on Monday, according to a post on Facebook.

After their arrest, the Epefanios were released on their own recognizance. They returned to their home on the reservation and apparently told others that they weren't facing serious criminal charges, Mennonite World Review reported.

“This is serious fraud on the members of the Hopi Tribe, including the students of the Mission School and your continued presence on the reservation may be harmful to the members of the Hopi Indian Tribe,” the exclusion order read, Mennonite World Review reported.

The school serves students from kindergarten to eighth grade. It is closely affiliated with the Mennonite Church and is located on land deeded to the church.

“Mennonite Church USA has cooperated fully with any and all requests of law enforcement officials and will continue to do so,” executive director Ervin Stutzman said in a press release last October.

Read More on the Story:
Hopi school administrator expelled from reservation (Mennonite World Review 1/9)
Hopi school staff members arrested on allegation of Social Security fraud (Mennonite World Review 10/4)