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Harper sentenced for felony theft; 240 hours community service, $7,500 restitution

A former East Ridge High School principal will serve 240 hours of community service and pay South Washington County Schools $7,500 for misusing district funds.

Aaron Harper, 42, of Cottage Grove, was sentenced in Washington County District Court Thursday, Aug. 24, for one felony theft by swindle charge after pleading guilty in May. Two other felony theft charges were dismissed in the plea.

District Judge William Ekstrum also required that Harper notify future employers of his conviction if he seeks a position involving financial responsibilities.

At the sentencing, Harper apologized to the school and to his family.

"I have complete remorse, and I find myself embarrassed to be in this position," he said.

Harper resigned from his position at East Ridge in 2014, after the district started investigating claims he had spent thousands of dollars. He cited "personal reasons" for the resignation.

According to a criminal complaint, Harper used school funds to buy weight loss drinks, Sam's Club memberships, electronics and power tools, softball equipment and $7,900 in cutlery knives.

Harper also created a "slush fund" using money from student parking pass fees and donations from parents, from which he withdrew more than $2,000 between 2012 and 2014, according to the complaint.

Peter Wold, Harper's attorney, said during the sentencing that the school used and benefited from most of the purchases.

A county prosecutor, however, said Harper's misuse of the money caused irreparable damage to public trust and forced members of his staff to be "complicit in his scheme."

Subordinates who questioned Harper's use of the money, he said, were silenced with "the look."

The $7,500 in restitution falls between the $5,000 Harper agreed to pay in his plea and the $14,000 prosecutors sought. The duration of community service, however, more than doubles the 100 hours Harper's attorneys sought.