A two-year investigation by the Miami-Dade Inspector General found that the former principal of John A. Ferguson Senior High School in West Kendall deliberately diverted over $200,000 in taxpayer money to pay for hotel lodging, booze and grub for school employees, as well as their friends and relatives, who attended five retreats between 2003 and 2007 -- and that he tried to cover it up.
For his alleged fraud, Donald Hoecherl gets a slap on the wrist.
According to a December 19 memo from Inspector General Christopher Mazzella to the Miami-Dade School Board and Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, Hoecherl avoided arrest on criminal charges by agreeing to resign from Miami-Dade Public Schools and pay $20,272 in restitution. As part of a settlement agreement with the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, Hoecherl "does not admit to any criminal wrongdoing." Hoecherl quit this past November 20.
Hoecherl's lawyer Michael J. Rosen said his client was unfairly targeted by the inspector general and that the investigative report is riddled with misinformation. "Dr. Hoecherl is one of the good guys," Rosen attested.
The inspector general's office initiated its probe in January 2008 after a school board internal audit discovered the spending irregularities. Hoecherl was hired by Miami-Dade Public Schools in 1974, rising up the ranks to principal in 1992. He was Ferguson High's principal from 2003 until 2007, the year he was promoted to administrative director of professional development.
During his tenure at Ferguson High, the school hosted five employee annual retreats before the start of the school year. The first one took place in August 2003 at the Marriott Fairfield Inn & Suites in Miami Beach. A year later, it was held at the school and Christ the King Lutheran Church. In 2005, Hoecherl booked the retreat at the Four Points Sheraton Resort in Miami Beach. In 2006, he took the retreat to the Doral Marriott Golf & Spa. And in 2007, the retreat was held at Hawk's Cay Resort in the Keys.
According to the inspector general's report, "in three of the five retreats examined, third parties were falsely presented on the purchase orders as putting on the retreat...the third parties were merely conduits through which Dr. Hoecherl passed school board funds."
For example, even though Hoecherl personally negotiated lodging rates with Hawk's Cay, he had school staff create a purchase order from a vendor "purportedly conducting a three-day workshop on August 10 through August 12, 2007." The inspector general's report claims the vendor "was not in the business of organizing or facilitating workshops or seminars." The fake invoice was for $115,391.
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Furthermore, the inspector general uncovered a document that notes "must hide all alcoholic charges on bills - list as something else." According to an itemized bill from Hawk's Cay, the hotel charged Ferguson High $4,503 for an open bar, which is prohibited under school board rules.
Read the entire investigative report below: