Minneapolis charter school director allegedly embezzled $1.38 million

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 1, 2009 - 8:45 PM

His elaborate scam bought him a lavish lifestyle and closed the school, charges say.

People knew a lot of money was missing from a Minneapolis charter school. But even its principal was stunned by how much.

The former executive director of the Oh Day Aki/Heart of the Earth school, Joel Pourier, appeared in court Monday on charges of embezzling $1.38 million from the school for American Indian children and spending it on houses, cars and nights at strip clubs.

"This is just about as bad as it gets," Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said at a news conference Monday.

Pourier, 39, of Shakopee, was charged Friday with eight felony counts of theft by swindle. He is being held in the county jail in lieu of $25,000 bail.

His attorney Tom Sieben said Pourier is innocent and plans to plead not guilty.

"It took a long time for them to finally bring forward specific accusations against him, and we look forward to showing why these are not true," Sieben said.

The criminal complaint details an elaborate hoax: From 2003 to 2008, Pourier allegedly forged school officials' signatures on dozens of checks and transferred money to at least six bank accounts under his control.

As the embezzlement persisted, the school "routinely did not have enough money to finance field trips, supplies, computers or textbooks for the students," the complaint says. Eventually, "the defendant's embezzlement and mismanagement finally led to the closing" of the school last summer, when the Minneapolis School District revoked its charter.

"People ask me, 'Why did they close the school?'" said Darlene Leiding, formerly the school's principal. "It was one man who did all this."

Leiding said that after seeing the school's bank records, she knew that Pourier had stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars. But the $1.38 million figure was a shock -- and officials say the amount could still increase. "My goodness," she said. "It was mind-boggling."

Luxury cars, expensive houses

Pourier became the focus of a Hennepin County Sheriff's Office investigation last summer when an audit of the school, filed six months late, showed $160,000 missing. After investigating for several months, the office found 124 canceled checks and fund transfers from the school account into accounts that Pourier controlled.

He would add memo lines to transfers to make them look legitimate. For example, on one for $18,345, he wrote "Speech and Therapy."

One of the signatures Pourier allegedly forged belongs to John Plunkett, chair of the school's board. Plunkett's signature was required on all purchases over a few hundred dollars, he said, and each month he signed several.

But many more existed that he never signed, he said.

"That's the thing that really got me," said Plunkett, who taught fifth grade at the school. "It was not my handwriting at all. Felt-tipped pen, spaces between the letters. It didn't even look like he tried to forge it very well."

Although the board reviewed monthly financial summaries, they came with few details. The board did not review the checks as the bank returned them to the school -- something Plunkett regrets.

"We hired him to do a job and I trusted him to do it," he said. "If I could go back, I'd do a lot differently. But 20-20 hindsight is useless at this point."

Many checks were made to appear that Pourier was being paid for a cleaning contract with the school, the complaint states. In an interview with an investigator, Pourier "admitted that he has no interest in any cleaning company," it says.

Sheriff Stanek declined to comment further on that point but said that in an interview, Pourier "made some admissions about some parts" of the case.

He said Pourier had used the school's money on an extravagant lifestyle.

Records as of last summer showed him owning at least three houses: one valued at $667,000 in Shakopee, another at $205,000 in New Prague and the third, in Minneapolis, at $320,000.

He's also owned an Escalade and a Hummer.

'A life of lies'

Oh Day Aki was founded as the Heart of the Earth Survival School in 1972 by the American Indian Movement. Its goal was to provide a rigorous, nurturing environment for Indian students. It later became a charter school receiving state funds.

The school hired Pourier seven years ago as finance director; it later named him executive director. Its board never looked at Pourier's resume, said Plunkett, which was largely fabricated, according to Friday's complaint.

On it, Joel Pourier characterizes himself as having "a successful administrative and financial track record" and a master's degree in business administration from Chadron (Neb.) State College. According to the registrar's office at Chadron, Pourier never attended the school.

He also said he has a bachelor's degree in business administration from Schenectady County Community College in Schenectady, N.Y., and an associate degree in accounting from Haskell University in Lawrence, Kan. Officials at both schools said Pourier did not earn degrees there.

"His whole life appears to be a life of lies," said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman.

Freeman said the eight counts of theft by swindle carry a maximum prison sentence of 68 months (more than 5 1/2 years). His office will seek to double that.

"It's a sad story, but we're going to have a positive ending because by the time we're done, Mr. Pourier's going to do some real time," Freeman said.

Staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report. Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

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Joel Pourier