A former Dover charter school principal has been sentenced to 13 months in prison and ordered to pay more than $145,000 in restitution for embezzling federal education funds.
A three-year state and federal investigation found that Noel Rodriguez, 56, used the stolen money in a number of ways, including charging personal expenses to four unauthorized school credit cards and a state credit card. He spent the money on electronics, travel, car expenses, gardening and camping equipment, home improvement items, and a dog house.
The Academy of Dover Charter School, whose 250 kindergarten through fifth-grade students are mostly poor black children, remains open. In 2015, after the abuse was uncovered, the Delaware Department of Education put the school on probation for a year.
The federal government gives significant funding to the school, providing the basis of Rodriguez’s conviction on one count of federal program theft.
Rodriguez pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Wilmington in November, and had faced up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The sentence, while far less than the maximum, “holds Rodriguez accountable for stealing $145,000 meant for the children and school he was hired to serve, and it should serve as a warning to others contemplating misappropriating public funds,’’ said David Weiss, U.S. attorney for Delaware.
Geoffrey Wood of the U.S. Department of Education said such thieves “will be caught and held accountable.”
Rodriguez misappropriated at least $127,000 from July 2011 through October 2014 alone, according to a 2015 report from State Auditor Tom Wagner’s office.
That report said he spent nearly $40,000 on electronics and more than $11,000 at restaurants.
When the auditor’s office informed Rodriguez of its investigation, he returned more than $5,000 worth of goods, including a washer, dryer, camera, scanner, and lawn mower.
Wagner’s office also said its investigators could not account for an additional $129,000, and that Rodriguez’s financial abuses likely predated the period under investigation.
The auditor’s report said Rodriguez exploited the school’s “lack of oversight and complete disregard for internal controls” for his personal benefit, once bragging to another employee that he “had the board in his back pocket.”
The report also criticized the board and the state Department of Education for failing to detect years of financial abuse.
“A major concern regarding the situation at the [school] is the length of time that passed without any intervention from oversight parties” the school board of directors and auditors, the Department of Education and the Charter School Accountability Committee, the report said.