Ex-Phoenixville schools finance chief gets 14 months in prison for embezzling $94,000 – The Mercury

PHILADELPHIA — The former finance director who pleaded guilty to embezzling money from the Phoenixville Area School District was sentenced in federal court to one year and two months in prison.

Additionally, according to information provided by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Christopher Gehris, 47, will be required to pay back the more than $94,000 he stole. Gehris will also be subject to three years of probation, or “supervised release,” after he serves his prison term.

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Gehris, a resident of Phoenixville, pleaded guilty in early February and the sentence was imposed by United States District Court Judge Mitchell S. Goldberg.

According to a report in The Philadelphia Inquirer, defense attorney Stephen I. Baer asked the judge for probation, but Goldberg refused.

In the wake of the sentence announcement, the school district posted a statement on its website which read: “The Phoenixville Area School District is pleased that the investigation and prosecution of Mr. Gehris has concluded. In spite of the challenges of COVID-19, the case was fully investigated. Today’s ruling allows all parties to begin moving forward. Mr. Gehris’s actions negatively impacted, the students, parents, community and district.”

The statement further noted, “the district thanks the Phoenixville Police Department, Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Attorney and the Federal Courts for their work and thoughtful deliberations. As always, our thoughts go out to Mr. Gehris’s family.”

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, “Gehris cashed checks made payable to himself and to ‘cash,’ received checks and direct deposits into his personal checking account for ‘start-up money’ for student activities, stole cash from school programs, and obtained gift cards for personal expenditures – all in furtherance of his embezzlement scheme from 2013 to 2019.”

The Inquirer article gave the following example: “after $10,849 in checks and cash was collected from seventh-grade students going on a class trip, Gehris changed the records of the totals collected to short the fund nearly $800 that he deposited into his account.”

Gehris also admitted that he hid his thefts by altering receipts and falsifying reports submitted to the school board.

Some of the money was stolen from a program funded with federal funds, which is why the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District handled the prosecution. The case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Phoenixville Police Department and was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Terri A. Marinari.

“The defendant stole nearly $100,000 from a public school district, money, some of which was specifically allocated for student activities meant to enhance their educational experience,” said U.S. Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams. “Criminals that embezzle public money from schools are ripping off hundreds of students while also ripping off all taxpayers who fund them.”

Gehris’ actions also ended up in a 2021 report from the state Auditor General’s office that highlighted some of the irregularities and the district’s failure to catch them until 2019.

The “discrepancies” in the books were first announced in September 2019, two weeks after Gehris resigned his post at the district in the wake of an internal audit in which some of the discrepancies first appeared.

By the time the auditor general’s report was released, it included responses from the district indicating the control deficiencies had already been addressed. For months, members of the public regularly asked about the progress of the investigation and were told by the board and administration there was nothing they could say until the investigation was completed by law enforcement.

Gehris was first hired in 2006 hired as a controller for the district’s business office and later promoted to business manager. In 2018, he was appointed to serve as the director of finance.

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