Treasurer for Winter Park commissioner accused of paying minors to steal opponent’s signs

The treasurer for a newly elected Winter Park City Commissioner was arrested last month after allegedly soliciting minors to steal campaign signs for payment, court records show.

Christopher Hoats was charged with misdemeanor charges of petit theft, and two counts of contributing to the delinquency or dependency of a minor, records show.

He served as the treasurer for Craig Russell, who last month won a seat on the Winter Park City Commission, according to public campaign filings.

Neither Hoats nor Russell responded to requests for comment.

Little has been revealed publicly about the investigation that led to charges being filed on April 30.

A police report related to the situation reveals a few details but is heavily redacted.

The police call in the matter came two days after Russell and Jason Johnson clinched spots in a run-off election which Russell ultimately won on April 16 by a 34-vote margin.

Officers were dispatched on March 21 at about 2 p.m. to a neighborhood where they found Nancy Cocchiarella, who said she’d been following four minors riding skateboards, one of whom was carrying a bent-up campaign sign promoting Johnson’s candidacy.

She told them to put the signs down but they didn’t, the report reads. Eventually the minors threw the signs down before law enforcement caught up with them.

Much of the remaining narrative is redacted — and Hoats isn’t mentioned at all in the police report, in which all the names were redacted. The agency cited a public records exemption related to cases involving youth under 18 years old, even though Hoats is not a minor.

Johnson said he was aware of the accusations prior to the runoff but didn’t bring them up publicly. He said he hopes to learn more about what happened, and has unanswered questions related to if campaign funds were used.

“It was disappointing to become aware of it,” he said.

A hearing in the case is scheduled for June 7.

rygillespie@orlandosentinel.com