- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 28, 2014

BENNINGTON, Vt. (AP) - A former elementary school principal in Vermont has pleaded not guilty to embezzlement charges accusing him of diverting $4,000 in grant money to his personal use and taking students’ lunch money.

Michael Heller of Fairfax had been principal of Readsboro Elementary School for two years.

Police said they were contacted by interim superintendent Richard McClements on Dec. 19, 2013, after a five-week investigation about a “Principal’s Account” that wasn’t authorized.

Police also spoke to school Secretary Patricia Kidney, who said about $200 in lunch money dropped off at her desk was missing over a year.

David Silver, Heller’s attorney, said his client admitted to misusing the grant funds and forging invoices because he suffers from health problems, as does his mother, and to pay off $1,500 in outstanding motor vehicle fines she had incurred, the Bennington Banner reported. But Heller has denied taking any lunch money.

He said planned to repay the money through a lawn care business he would run this summer.

The school had been awarded three grants, which Heller deposited into the “Principal’s Account” at the People’s United Bank, according to district business manager Karen Atwood.

Atwood found that $6,094 had been deposited and alleged personal purchases had been made from it, according to a police affidavit. The account included a $5,000 grant from Lowes Corp. for security improvements; $1,000 from Macy’s to pay for a production of “Yes, Virginia;” and $94 from Target Corp. donation for miscellaneous purchases.

Atwood asked Heller for invoices, which he provided after several weeks.

The town clerk told police she sought original invoices from each vendor and found they didn’t match Heller‘s. They included a purchase from Lorex for $1,499 in equipment but Lorex showed the purchase was for $464 and a transaction on Dec. 10 was for $937 for a headset from Amazon, while Amazon’s records show the item cost $159, the affidavit said.

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Information from: Bennington Banner, https://www.benningtonbanner.com

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