Choked up but still professing innocence, former Minneapolis park employee Hashim Yonis caught a break Friday when a judge sentenced him to a gross misdemeanor for stealing park rental fees.

Hennepin County District Judge Tanya M. Bransford departed from the felony charge under which Yonis was convicted in November. Instead, she imposed a gross misdemeanor sentence, taking into account that Yonis is seeking a doctorate so he can become a principal.

Yonis, 27, a former park and school worker, was considered a rising star in Somali circles in Minneapolis until the charges. He drew recognition from Mayor R.T. Rybak, outgoing Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson and President Obama.

"I can't remember another defendant I've had who was working on his doctorate while his case was pending," Bransford said.

Attorney Ira Whitlock told Bransford that a felony record would thwart his client's employability as a future school administrator.

Bransford sentenced Yonis to 365 days in the workhouse, but he'll serve only 59 unless he violates the terms of his probation in the next two years. He will be able to leave the workhouse for work or school. She also ordered him to pay $480 in restitution to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.

Yonis was accused of taking more than $5,000 in funds collected for rental of a soccer field at Currie Park in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. The accusations came after area residents complained they couldn't access the field on weekends. But a jury found he'd taken less than $1,000, an amount that still qualified as a felony because it involved government money.

"I have already walked to the gate of hell the last four months. It's very difficult for me to stand here. I feel I must be dreaming," Yonis said before his sentencing. "I continue to say I am innocent."

Yonis said he was victimized by a political conspiracy because he was dismissed after he filed to run for a Park Board seat. However, the investigation against him began more than a month before he filed.

Bransford read from one unidentified juror's post-trial evaluation that "I was repelled by the conspiracy theory. It undermined his credibility."

Yonis, who is married with two children, lives in north Minneapolis. He worked for the park system until he was fired. He appealed and later agreed to resign.

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