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Former East Ridge High School principal Aaron Harper pleads guilty to theft

Former Easter Ridge High School Principal Aaron Harper pleaded guilty to theft by swindle charges in Washington County Monday. He is accused of making personal purchases using school district money. File photo

A former principal of East Ridge High School in Woodbury has pleaded guilty to felony theft for misusing school funds to make personal purchases.

Aaron Harper, 41, abruptly resigned in 2014 when allegations surfaced that he had inappropriately spent thousands of school district dollars for unapproved goods and services. On Monday, the Cottage Grove man pleaded guilty to one count of felony theft by swindle in Washington County District Court.

Prosecutors charged him with three counts of theft by swindle in 2015, each of which carries a maximum five-year prison sentence.

As part of the plea, Harper agreed to pay restitution for all three theft charges, which total more than $5,000, according to court records.

The plea included a 60-day cap for jail time.

County prosecutors dismissed two of the three charges as part of the plea agreement.

Harper is accused of using a district-issued credit card to buy items and services for personal use.

Following a police and internal investigation, school officials determined the purchases were either unnecessary or not requested by school departments, according to the charges.

The criminal complaint details thousands of dollars worth of unauthorized purchases Harper made over the course of three years. They including weight loss drinks, Sam’s Club memberships, Menard's power tools, electronics, funeral flowers, softball equipment and $7,900 in cutlery knives.

Harper is also accused of collecting money from student parking passes and parent cash donations to create a “slush fund.” Prosecutors say he withdrew about $2,300 from the fund between 2012 and 2014.

Several items were not accounted for, according to court records.

A trial was set for May 8.

When Harper resigned Nov. 6, 2014, he said he was leaving the school for personal reasons.

South Washington County School District officials had been investigating complaints made against him for inappropriate purchases with district funds.

School staff voiced concerns about some of his use of school money. In one case, an employee said he or she feared “the look” Harper would give when questioned, according to court records.

Harper admitted to investigators that he made purchases for himself, according to the complaint. In other instances, he told them he didn't recall buying the items.

The district didn’t take disciplinary action against Harper.

He also signed a release of claims agreement and didn’t receive settlement or payments for his resignation.

District officials picked Harper to lead East Ridge when it opened in 2009. He previously worked as the assistant principal at Oltman Middle School in St. Paul Park.

District Judge B. William Ekstrum set sentencing for Aug. 24.