ST. PETERSBURG — Shorecrest Preparatory School touts itself as the oldest independent day school in Florida. The elite school of about 1,000 students is regarded as one of the best private institutions in the bay area.
Parents pay $18,000 a year to see their teenagers throw the school's mortarboards. Among its small graduating class, 90 percent pass Advanced Placement exams.
If Shorecrest is accustomed to excellence, it is unaccustomed to controversy.
But the school now finds itself named in a lawsuit filed in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court.
The lawsuit accuses the school's former parent association president, Connie Geiger, 48, and her husband, Bill Geiger, 53, who volunteered at the school, of bilking more than $1 million from businessman Curt Schlager and his partners.
Schlager's lawsuit says the Geigers paid Shorecrest tuition for their three children with his stolen money — sometimes even with his own checks. The school should have realized the Geigers were broke and were using stolen money to pay, the lawsuit says.
Schlager, 50, is seeking $250,000 from the school.
Schlager's attorney, James L. Hunter, says Bill Geiger is a seasoned con man who somehow wormed his way into the Shorecrest community despite a history of white-collar crime and gambling debt.
The school's headmaster, Michael Murphy, said in a brief interview: "I can assure you no one in the school partnered with anyone on any illegal use or embezzlement of anyone's funds. The school was unaware of anything inappropriate happening."
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In 2006, Curt Schlager took a phone call from Connie Geiger.
Schlager knew the Geigers because, years before, he bought property from Bill Geiger. They remained acquainted, Schlager said, sometimes bumping into each other at Bucs games.
Connie Geiger asked Schlager to give her husband a job. Schlager made him a foreman, at $10 an hour, at his metal fabrication business in Pinellas Park.
Bill Geiger confided to Schlager that he was on parole, but said only that his troubles were related to the WorldCom financial collapse.
"I didn't go on digging," Schlager said. "Maybe I should have."
Geiger offered to help Schlager, who cannot read well, with paperwork. He was given more duties, including customer relations. Geiger had a great work ethic and a Southern charm that clients liked, Schlager said.
Outside of work, Geiger was a churchgoer and a coach on his son's Little League team.
After about a year on the job, Geiger offered to help several of Schlager's business partners invest $200,000, then misled them with inflated profits before talking them into investing another $200,000, the suit says.
As Geiger was given more trust, Schlager became distracted from his company because of a series of tragedies, he said.
In May 2007, his daughter was murdered in Pinellas Park. Two months later, his ex-wife was killed in a motorcycle accident. A year later, his 6-month-old grandson died.
Meanwhile, Bill and Connie Geiger were forging Schlager's signature on financial forms. Over the next four years, they funneled about $1 million of his money into their own accounts. Bill Geiger led Schlager to believe he was putting his money in real estate, the suit says.
"That's probably what frustrates and angers me the most," said Grant A. McCammon, an investor who says he lost $200,000 to Geiger. "He preyed on the worst part of this guy's entire life."
The whole time, Schlager's money was also flowing to Shorecrest, the lawsuit says. Court papers show the tuition payments sometimes were made with Schlager's personalized bank checks — which were signed by Connie Geiger.
Shorecrest should have seen from tax returns that the Geigers could not afford the tuition, the lawsuit says. Bill Geiger reported about $21,000 a year in income, and Connie Geiger reported no income, the lawsuit says.
Connie Geiger rose to president of the parent association for the 2009-10 school year. She often appeared in school photos beaming at the camera with other parents by her side.
In court papers, Shorecrest denies the charges in the lawsuit, which was filed in December. No one associated with Shorecrest — including board members, the current parent association president and the school's lawyer — wanted to talk about the suit.
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Had Schlager dug into Bill Geiger's past, he would have found a disturbing history.
Geiger lost his Florida real estate license in 1984 after he was found guilty of stealing $85,000 from investors, records show. Over the years, he was convicted four times in state and federal courts of organized fraud, passing worthless checks and possessing cocaine with intent to sell, according to court records. Geiger's last conviction, in 2003, was for conspiracy to commit bank fraud for his role in a $1.2 million check kiting scheme. He was also arrested on a warrant for failure to pay six-figure Las Vegas gambling debts, according to court records.
Today, Geiger is on conditional release after serving a year in prison for violating his parole on the bank fraud case. Prosecutors say he hid money from his parole officer — including funds obtained from Schlager — while avoiding restitution payments.
In the sentencing memorandum, prosecutors describe Geiger's conduct as "one of the most egregious instances of a failure of supervised release caused by a defendant's dishonesty."
Hunter said he is cooperating with several state and federal agencies that are investigating the couple.
Through their attorneys, the Geigers declined to comment, though Connie Geiger's attorney, Michael A. Gold, insisted there is more to the story.
In court papers filed in federal court last year, the Geigers' attorneys said the family is saddled with debt and is struggling to pay restitution payments of more than $10,000 a month related to Bill Geiger's 2003 conviction.
Their $568,000 waterfront home in Venetian Isles is in foreclosure, Connie Geiger's credit cards are maxed out, and the Geigers are behind on their tuition payments at Shorecrest and hope to get scholarships, according to a court filing. The couple filed for bankruptcy in 2007.
Their children still attend Shorecrest, headmaster Murphy said.
Times researchers Stephanie Bolling and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Luis Perez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2271.