Former Essex County track coach admits stealing $150K in school scam

By Noah Cohen | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on December 10, 2016

Michael Smart

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NEWARK -- The former head track and field coach at Essex County College pleaded guilty Friday to pilfering $150,000 by taking advances for various travel and event expenses, and depositing the money in his personal bank account.

Michael Smart, 62, of Roselle, admitted he stole the money between 2012 and 2015, according to the state Attorney General's Office. Under terms of the plea deal, prosecutors will recommend Smart serve three years in prison, pay full restitution and be permanently banned from public employment.

"As a college coach, Smart should have loyally guarded every dollar in the athletic budget to enhance the school's sports programs," state Attorney General Christopher Porrino said in a statement. "We have ensured that he will pay a high price for betraying these students."

As head coach, Smart was issued a debit/credit card with a college account to be used for work-related expenses, including travel, food, transportation and event entry fees, according to state officials. Coaches were supposed to return any of the unused money along with records of the expenses and receipts after events.

Smart withdrew about $150,000 using the college card and did not provide any accounting records or receipts, officials said. The stolen funds were largely taken using ATM machines and deposited into Smart's personal bank account.

The former coach withdrew the maximum of $700 several times per day, repeatedly inflated the cost of an event or requested money for events that the team didn't attend, according to the Attorney General's Office. In other incidents, he requested $1,000 to $1,500 for event entry fees when the hosting schools charged less than half those amounts, or had no fee at all.

"Smart used the debit card that was entrusted to him for team purposes like it was a personal debit card, racking up many thousands of dollars in withdrawals," said Elie Honig, director of the Division of Criminal Justice, which handled the investigation. "By sending this coach to prison, we will deter others who might consider embezzling funds in this fashion."

Essex County College has been working to recover from alleged mismanagement, law enforcement probes and ouster of its top leaders. In an interview Thursday, Acting College President A. Zachary Yamba said the school would address the results of the investigations.

"Internally, we are fixing what we know is broken," Yamba told NJ Advance Media after the Middle States Commission on Higher Education cautioned the approximately 18,000-student college could risk losing its accreditation.

The Newark-based college must prepare a report for the Middle States by Sept. 1, 2017 to detail that it has complied and can maintain compliance in areas of institutional resources, leadership and governance, and student admission and retention.

For his part, Smart resigned last October and previously declined to comment on allegations of financial impropriety when reached at the time. The long celebrated former coach is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 3, 2017 on a charge of theft by unlawful taking.

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