Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Readsboro, Vermont principal admits to embezzling

The former principal of the Readsboro Central School admitted on Monday to embezzling from the school but may evade a criminal record for the incident.

Michael W. Heller, 41, of Fairfax, pleaded guilty on Monday in Bennington criminal court to a felony charge of embezzlement. The state dismissed a misdemeanor charge of petty larceny.

As part of the plea agreement, Heller’s sentencing was delayed for 18 months. If he has no further legal problems, the charge will be expunged from his record.

Through his attorney, David Silver, Heller admitted on Monday to embezzling about $4,500 for his personal use from about $6,000 in grants that were awarded to the school last year.

Police released information about the embezzlement in January. Heller resigned from his position as principal of the school, where he had served for about a year, in December.

Former Readsboro Central School principal Michael Heller changed his plea to guilty in Bennington Criminal Court on Monday, admitting he embezzled more than $4,500 in school grant money over a period of seven months in 2013 for personal use. Through a plea deal accepted by Judge Nancy Corsones, the school district will be fully reimbursed, and Heller will have the opportunity to avoid a felony on his record.

The plea deal will allow Heller to avoid jail time by serving an 18-month deferred sentence on one felony charge of embezzlement, while a second charge of petit larceny was dismissed. Heller will be required to pay Readsboro School District $4,500 in restitution before August 14, and serve special conditions of probation including 100 hours of community service and mental health counseling. If Heller completes the 18-month probation period without incident, the felony embezzlement charge will be expunged from his record. Heller’s attorney, David Silver, told Corsones that the deal was the result of “lengthy, intense negotiations and fact finding.” To reach an agreement on a deferred sentence, state’s attorney Erica Marthage wanted to hear from the Windham Southwest Supervisory Union and the Readsboro School Board.

“What we did in connection with that was we had depositions (gathered) from the superintendent, the chair of the school board at the time, another member of the school board, and a collaborating principal from another school in the district,” said Silver. “The contents of the depositions were that Mr. Heller really was a transformative figure in that school and he was universally admired for the incredible work he was doing there, and how dedicated and hard-working he was. No one could believe that he did this really unfortunate act, they were shocked, and even after knowing they didn’t want to fire him.”

Principal of RCS for 16 months, Heller, 40, of Fairfax, was charged with embezzlement and petit larceny in January, following an investigation into the misuse of grant money from two different loans, one from Lowes for school improvements, the other from Macy’s for a school play. As previously reported, Heller opened a “principal’s account” at People’s United Bank unbeknown to the WSSU, and for which he was the only signatory. Heller used this account for personal shopping and expenses as well as hotel stays and food purchases. The account was discovered after an internal audit and an investigation were conducted by WSSU officials, and Heller was asked to provide bank statements and the transaction history of the account. 

According to a police affidavit, Heller took several weeks to respond to the request and instead provided computer-generated invoices from companies such as Qualified Hardware and Lorax, complete with the items purchased, their total cost, and their company logos. These invoices did not match the invoices provided by these companies, and featured drastic differences in cost. In all, 61 transactions were made on the account, of which $1,060.51 was used for security equipment at the school and $4,536.02 was used for personal purchases and withdrawals. “During the course of his administration of those funds, he converted them to his own use with the intent to replenish that money at some point, but that of course is not a legal defense for embezzlement,” said Silver. 

The state is dropping a count of misdemeanor petit larceny relating to the disappearance of approximately $200 in student lunch money, a charge Heller has consistently denied. Silver said that these claims made for catchy headlines, but were erroneously blamed on his client by Trooper Lauren Ronan, who wrote the police affidavit. Silver also said that while it does not excuse the crime, Heller used the money to help his mother pay a parking ticket and medical bills. 

“The level of shame and punishment from the public nature of the crime is significant in itself,” said Silver. “The level of shame and level of trauma this has caused him personally, financially, and to his family has been enormous and this is the consequence. In the age of Google he’s always going to have this on his record one way or another, but this gives him a chance to have somewhat of a clean start after he earns his way back.”

Corsones addressed Heller directly about the nature of the crime, and about the former Marine’s future. “I can tell from your demeanor that the shame Mr. Silver talks about is evident, it speaks volumes without speaking words,” said Corsones. “Since the current economic collapse in the last four years or so, the amount of crime of this sort is remarkable. To meet personal needs is not an excuse, and it’s not condoning anything, but the number of embezzlement crimes from otherwise law-abiding citizens has grown exponentially. 

“It’s really unfortunate because the people you disappointed most beyond your family, are children, and to live with that disappointment takes a strong person. It probably takes a Marine in terms of personal fortitude to deal with that kind of shame. I have no doubt you’ll not engage in this form of behavior again.”

A restitution judgment is yet to be held in the case, as well as sentencing.

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