Russell responds to allegations against treasurer

The new city commissioner told a newspaper he is ‘committed to upholding ethical and legal obligations’

May 10, 2024

By Beth Kassab

Craig Russell said Friday that he is “deeply concerned” about allegations against his campaign treasurer, Christopher Hoats, who he called a “good friend and fellow educator.”

Three misdemeanor charges against Hoats became public this week when he was issued a summons to appear on two counts of contributing to the dependency or delinquency of a minor and one count of petit theft related to soliciting minors to “steal campaign signs in exchange for money,” according to court documents reported first by the Voice on Thursday. 

In emailed comments to the Orlando Sentinel, Russell said Hoats “served for a period of time as our campaign treasurer,” though there does not appear to be a public filing with Winter Park’s clerk to show he was ever removed from that role.

“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,” he said in the statement to the newspaper he signed along with his wife Kate Demory, who served as deputy treasurer.

Russell, who was sworn in last month after winning the April 16 runoff by 34 votes, did not respond to multiple messages from the Voice and canceled a scheduled interview with this reporter on Friday regarding an unrelated topic.

The court documents and a heavily redacted police report provide few details about the evidence or circumstances in the case, which stems from an incident on March 21, two days after the first election in Winter Park and as the runoff between Russell and Jason Johnson was underway.

Hoats, 33, who has worked as a non-faculty coach at Winter Park High School, where Russell is also a teacher and a coach, did not respond to a phone call and email requesting comment. His arraignment is scheduled for June 7.

A Winter Park Police report from the date of the incident describes how a witness called police after she saw a group of kids taking Johnson’s campaign signs from yards as she was driving in Winter Park.

Nancy Elizabeth Cocchiarella, who is named in the court documents, was a volunteer for Johnson’s campaign who called police after she noticed signs, including her own, removed.

She stated she “saw the signs under the arms of [redacted],” and “she let her window down and told [redacted] and [redacted] to just put the signs back, and the juveniles kept riding on their skateboards.”

The report stated that the signs promoted Johnson’s campaign.

Officers eventually caught up with two of the juveniles, who called two other juveniles and asked them to come back to the area of Magnolia Avenue and Sunnyside Drive, according to the report.

At that point the narrative becomes heavily redacted except to describe that all four juveniles were, at one point, at a barbershop in Maitland.

None of the publicly available documents explain how or if the young people know Hoats or any details related to the offer to steal signs described in the court documents.

Hoats signed all of Russell’s campaign finance reports filed with the city clerk through March 15. The final two reports were signed by Demory, Russell’s wife who served as his deputy treasurer.


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