The Phoenixville Area School District’s former finance director was sentenced to 14 months in federal prison Wednesday for stealing nearly $95,000 intended for student outings, summer activities, and athletic events.
After an internal audit uncovered financial irregularities, Christopher Gehris resigned from the district in 2019 and apologized in court to school officials sat in the gallery’s front row. However, when questioned by the United States District Judge Mitchell S. Goldberg, he had a difficult time explaining why he had stolen the money.
The 47-year-old Gehris stated, his emotions hidden by a face mask, “I didn’t buy a boat. There aren’t any other large purchases. There was credit card debt … family. I succumbed to the pressure of doing more than what we could afford.” Gehris’ attorney, on the other hand, argued that a probationary term was not warranted since Gehris had confessed what he had done and was willing to pay back the money he had stolen early on.
The judge emphasized that this was not a probation matter. To this day, I have no idea why [he did it].” My conclusion is simple: “I’m going to land on greed and nothing more — just plain unadulterated greed.”
Gehris’ offenses came to light because of concerns raised by a district employee to Superintendent Alan Fegley over a district account’s balance. A district-wide inquiry revealed that Gehris had been making suspicious cash withdrawals, purchasing gift cards that had gone missing, and taking money that children had contributed to help fund school outings. Using the example of a class field trip that collected $10,849 in checks and cash, Gehris altered the records of those funds obtained to short the fund by over $800 that he transferred into his bank account. Three Visa gift cards totaling $2,000 each were purchased by an employee on behalf of Gehris in the same year, according to court records. Gehris had placed the cards into his personal bank account, which investigators eventually discovered.
During an FBI interrogation in 2020, he acknowledged that he had been stealing money from the district since 2010. In the beginning of this year, he entered a guilty plea to the charge of one count of embezzlement.
Defense attorney Stephen I. Baer told the court on Wednesday that the Public School Employees’ Retirement System’s (PSERS) account will be liquidated in order to pay back what Gehris had stolen. “The school district wants to be repaid,” he said. “My client wants to repay them. His intent is to make full restitution.”
He has been working part-time for an accounting business in West Chester since he was accused last year, earning far less than the $130,000-a-year salary he was given by the Phoenixville schools, according to Baer.
“Mr. Gehris has already punished himself due to his self-inflicted harm,” Baer said.
Additionally, Goldberg ordered Gehris to serve three years of probation upon his release, pay the whole restitution to the school system, and perform 50 hours of community service.