Former Jefferson Central School District superintendent Edward Roche pleaded guilty to official misconduct Wednesday and agreed to return $88,502 to the district and give up lifetime health benefits for himself and his family.
In agreeing to plead to a class A misdemeanor, instead of the four felonies he had been charged with in July, Roche admitted to obtaining the money as a result of “unauthorized exercise of [his] official function, knowing it was unauthorized,” Schoharie County Judge George R. Bartlett III stated during court proceedings.
Roche was indicted in July on four felonies — grand larceny, defrauding the government and two counts of scheming to defraud — in connection with unauthorized payments investigators said he paid to himself between August 2003 and August 2005, while he was superintendent of the approximately 280-student district.
In addition to paying restitution and relinquishing district-paid health benefits, Roche is also expected to be sentenced to a maximum of three years of probation.
His sentencing is scheduled for March 11, pending a satisfactory presentencing report by the Delaware County Probation Department.
Although his crime was committed in Schoharie County, Roche lives in Delhi in Delaware County.
The charges stemmed from a state audit in 2006 after current Superintendent Carl J. Mummenthey and other district officials uncovered numerous discrepancies in contracts and payments during reviews of records in September 2005, shortly after Mummenthey took over as superintendent.
“We’re pleased to have this matter resolved,” Mummenthey said after hearing about Roche’s plea.
“From day one, the Board of Education has pursued a fair resolution that would make the district whole again and serve the interests of the district’s taxpayers,” he said.
Board of Education President Andy Van Glad could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
School officials initially reported their suspicions to the state Attorney General’s Office. The investigation was referred to state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, as well as to officials of the state retirement system.
In addition to the $88,502 in improper payments auditors identified, another $18,687 was called questionable when Mummenthey and the Board of Education revealed the auditors’ findings in July of 2007.
At the time, DiNapoli reported that “auditors found that [Roche] maintained his own personnel file.
“It appears that he altered his employment contract several times, without [school] board authorization, to increase the amount he would be paid when he retired,” according to DiNapoli.
When Roche retired in August 2005, he had a base annual salary of about $97,000.
The status of his retirement pay, which comes through the state retirement system, was unclear Wednesday.
Roche ran the sprawling but sparsely populated rural Jefferson district near the Delaware County line for 21 years.
Among the improper payments outlined by DiNapoli’s report were $47,437 for duplicate vacation days and insurance buyouts; $34,473 for 62 unearned vacation days paid at an inflated rate; $3,133 for unauthorized salary; $3,103 for inflated vacation day buy-out rates; and $356 in reimbursements related to dinners “honoring elected state officials” that were deemed not a legitimate district expense.
Schoharie County District Attorney James Sacket said Wednesday that he agreed to reduce the case to one official misconduct charge after several negotiating sessions with Roche’s attorney and discussions with Mummenthey and the school board over the past few months.
Roche, 58, pleaded guilty in open court Wednesday after his attorney, James M. Hartmann, and Sacket finalized the package of punishments during a final private conference in Bartlett’s chambers.
Giving up the district taxpayer-funded lifetime health benefits for Roche and his wife and two children was a key element in the deal, Sacket said.
“Without that component, the people will not agree,” Sacket said during the Wednesday’s court proceedings.
“Working with the school district, we will take steps to make sure that [agreement] is in place to relinquish the health benefits,” Hartmann told Bartlett.
The benefits could have cost the district as much as $500,000 or more over the beneficiaries’ lifetimes, according to Mummenthey.
Currently, Roche’s family health insurance benefit costs the district $15,864 per year, Mummenthey said.
Especially in a lightly populated school district, the benefits were a significant cost to taxpayers, Sacket noted.
The restitution money must be paid, in full, by the time Roche is sentenced March 11.
Hartmann said the money will initially be placed in his attorney escrow account before going back into school district coffers after the sentencing.
During their investigation, “auditors discovered 14 different variations of the former superintendent’s contract over a five-year period, including three with photocopied signatures,” according to DiNapoli.
Asked after his guilty plea Wednesday if he had anything to say to district taxpayers, Roche declined to comment.
If he were to be convicted in a trial, the original charges potentially could have resulted in a prison term of up to seven years, but Sacket said that penalty was “unlikely” given Roche’s apparent lack of a previous criminal record.