Winter Park Campaign Treasurer Faces Charges Related to Sign Thefts

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A member of Commissioner Craig Russell’s campaign team has been charged in connection to the theft of signs promoting his Seat 2 opponent, Jason Johnson.

Christopher Hoats served as Russell’s campaign treasurer and coaches at Winter Park High School where Russell is also a coach and teacher. Campaign financial documents list Hoats as being named treasurer in November of 2023 with Russell’s wife, Kate Demory, named as deputy treasurer. Hoats’ signature appears on financial documents until a March 15 filing when Demory’s signature appears on the remaining documents.

According to Orange County court documents filed on April 30, Hoats faces three misdemeanor charges: two counts of contributing to the delinquency or dependency of a minor and one count of petit theft. Two additional court documents fall under a confidentiality statute and are not available for public viewing. The arraignment hearing is scheduled for June 7.

The Orlando Sentinel cites a heavily redacted March 21 police report regarding a group of juveniles who were allegedly removing yard signs supporting the Johnson campaign. The report names Winter Park resident Nancy Cocchiarella as having witnessed the juveniles carrying damaged signs before they were confronted by responding officers. The report does not mention Hoats, and his relationship to the minors is unknown.

Hoats and Russell could not be reached for comment, but the Orlando Sentinel received an emailed statement from Russell and Demory explaining that they are “deeply concerned by the recent allegations against a good friend and fellow educator, who served for a period of time as our campaign treasurer.” The statement also includes the following:

“We do want to make it very clear that we have always been committed to upholding ethical and legal obligations in all our actions. Neither we nor the campaign have been accused of any contrary conduct, nor are we aware of any such conduct.”

Johnson informed the32789 in an email that he became aware of the incident shortly after it occurred.

“I was advised by a number of different supporters that there were many thefts of my signs throughout the city,” he states. “I usually chalked those up to neighborhood teenagers just being kids, but when I learned that these minors were allegedly offered money to take my signs, I was shocked. When I further learned that the person who allegedly offered the money was my opponent’s right-hand man and campaign Treasurer, I was frankly disgusted.”

Johnson added that he is not part of the investigation into the incident.

Russell defeated Johnson by only 34 votes in the April 16 City Commission Seat 2 runoff election. The 0.6% margin of victory was just above the minimum 0.5% required by state law for a recount.

Editor’s Note: New information was posted in an update on these events which published Saturday, May 11. That story can be accessed here.

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