Choked up but still professing innocence, former Minneapolis public 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 to impose a gross misdemeanor sentence. She did so in recognition that Yonis, 27, a former park and school worker, is seeking a doctorate so he can become a principal.

Yonis was considered a rising star in Somali circles in Minneapolis until the charges, attracting praise from Mayor R.T.Rybak, President Barack Obama and Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson.

"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 his probation terms 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.

She initially moved to order Yonis not to contact park commissioners during his probation, but later withdrew that after Whitlock raised questions about the breadth of the order.

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 after Somali residents complained that 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 funds.

Yonis was unable to speak for about 15 seconds when he stood to address Bransford before the sentencing.  “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,” he said. “I continue to say I am innocent.”

Yonis continued to maintain that he was victimized by a political conspiracy involving other park commissioners because he was dismissed after he filed to run for a Park Board seat. However, the investigation of allegations against him began more than a month before he filed.

Bransford made a point of reading 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 it fired him. He appealed and later agreed to resign. The school district also dismissed him as a probationary employee from a post at South High School.

Among the character witnesses for Yonis was Mohamud Noor, a school board member who earlier withheld comment on the charges against Yonis because he said he’d be involved in the personnel matter. He praised Yonis for integrity.  But prosecutor Susan Crumb said Yonis “exudes an air of entitlement.”

Whitlock said he is considering an appeal of the conviction on multiple grounds after Bransford denied his motion for a new trial.