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Plea deal reached in illegal school enrollment trial

In the end, all parties got something out of Hamlet Garcia’s guilty plea in a Norristown courtroom on Jan. 28.

Garcia, the Northeast Philadelphia man accused of illegally enrolling his daughter in a suburban public school, avoided a potential felony theft conviction and prison time by admitting that he lied to school officials about the 6-year-old girl’s address. He pleaded to a summary offense, not much different than a traffic ticket.

Meanwhile, the Lower Moreland School District got its money back — almost $11,000 in costs that the district claimed it had incurred to educate the kindergarten pupil for the entire 2011–12 academic year.

And school-choice advocates from as far as California and Florida got some more publicity for their cause: that ZIP code boundaries or county lines shouldn’t prevent parents from seeking better public education for their children.

“What happened here should never be a crime,” Hamlet Garcia, 42, said inside the Montgomery County courthouse after the hearing. “No family should face seven years in jail, not even a day in jail, by providing education to a child in a public school. It’s wrong.”

Garcia’s lead defense attorney, Ricardo Corona, traveled from Miami for the hearing, while school-choice activist Gloria Romero traveled from California. She is a former state senator in that state.

Assistant District Attorney Steven Latzer negotiated the plea deal for the prosecution. Garcia’s father-in-law, Grigori Sofitchouk, pleaded guilty to the same summary charge for his role in the deception and will have to contribute to the restitution payment of $10,753. The prosecution dropped charges against Garcia’s wife, Olesia, 34.

“(Garcia) has admitted that he wrongfully enrolled his child in the Lower Moreland School District,” Latzer said. “That’s all this case was ever about and all it ever will be about.”

From a legal standpoint, Hamlet Garcia fared no better than if he had accepted the prosecution’s offer of a rehabilitative program in November 2012. During a preliminary hearing then, the husband and wife indicated through another attorney their willingness to pay back the money and serve probation. Upon completion of the program, they could’ve gotten the case cleared from their criminal records.

Instead, one month later, Hamlet Garcia fired his lawyer and called a news conference to reclaim his innocence to felony theft of services charges. Playing both sides of the fence, he insisted that his daughter legally attended the school, but he also argued that the law preventing her from crossing county lines to attend school was unjust.

After last week’s hearing, Garcia made similar potentially contradictory remarks to the news media. One moment, he stated that he still felt his daughter was “legally eligible” to attend the Lower Moreland school. As he continued, he declared that the law itself is bad.

“We made a point today. It was always a civil matter, not a criminal matter,” Garcia said. “I’m not happy with the result one hundred percent today, but I’m happy to live in a country that I have at least the right to fight.”

Montgomery County authorities first arrested Hamlet and Olesia Garcia in August 2012 months after Olesia’s stepmother blew the whistle on the address discrepancy, prosecutors have said. The couple enrolled the girl at Pine Road Elementary School before the 2011–12 academic year and used a Huntingdon Valley address on registration forms.

The address they used was the home of Sofitchouk and his wife, who is Olesia Garcia’s stepmother. The following spring, the stepmother contacted the school to report that the school had erroneously sent mail to her home, instead of the girl’s parents.

The school hired a private investigator who determined that the girl did not live at the address reported on the enrollment forms. The investigator further compiled evidence that the girl lived with her father in the Somerton section of Philadelphia, mere blocks outside the Lower Moreland boundary.

When questioned by school officials, the Garcias claimed that they separated in 2011 and that the girl and her mother were living with Sofitchouk when the girl began attending Pine Road. Hamlet and Olesia Garcia further claimed that they reunited the following spring, but decided to leave their daughter at Pine Road to finish the school year.

The district attorney argued in court filings that other family members contradicted the Garcias’ residency claims. The prosecutor also claimed that the Garcias went on a “weeklong tropical vacation” together to the Dominican Republic during their purported separation. And in an unrelated civil lawsuit against SEPTA in January 2012, the Garcias allegedly reported that they both lived at their Somerton address.

In a September 2012 interview with the Northeast Times, Olesia Garcia stated that she operates an independent insurance agency, while her husband works at the agency. Their daughter has attended a suburban private school since fall 2012. ••

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