Timothy Wanamaker got off lightly.
Buffalo’s former economic development chief stole public money and he basically got a slap on the wrist.
At least, that’s the way most would view the situation, as he was sentenced to three years’ probation for using a City Hall credit card to charge more than $27,000 in personal expenses.
He also has to repay the money he stole to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Hired in 2003 by then-Mayor Anthony Masiello, Wanamaker looked like a young man who had it all together. Smart. Innovative. A breath of fresh air for Buffalo’s economic development hopes.
His titles included executive director of Buffalo’s Office of Strategic Planning. He also headed the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp., or BERC, a now-dormant City Hall development agency.
Wanamaker seemed to have the city by the tail until his sense of entitlement got the best of him and he began charging his personal hotel and travel expenses to his city credit card.
U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara was clearly incensed at Wanamaker for his crime, saying: “I just can’t imagine – even for a minute – of violating that public trust. I just can’t understand why anyone would do that.”
The judge had it right. Wanamaker violated public trust and, unfortunately, he is not alone in doing so.
Wanamaker’s crimes came to light during the investigation into the unrelated case of the failed One Sunset restaurant, which closed a year after it opened and left $160,000 in unpaid government grants and loans.
That investigation remains open, but in the meantime it has resulted in two unrelated and high-profile prosecutions. Besides Wanamaker, former Common Council Member Brian C. Davis pleaded guilty in May to stealing $48,000 in public funds while representing the Ellicott District on the Council. Davis was sentenced to a year in prison.
Wanamaker cooperated with the FBI and HUD, which led to an offer of leniency from prosecutors and a comment from Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph M. Guerra III that “to a certain extent, he did try to make things right.”
Small solace to a community that has every right to ask whether the officials it elects, or the bureaucrats those elected officials hire, will look out for the community’s interests or just try to skim as much off the top, bottom or middle as they can.
Apparently, Wanamaker’s cooperation has led to substantial changes in how Buffalo and other cities across the country handle federal funding. If there’s a silver lining in all of this, perhaps that’s a place to look.
Meantime, defense attorney James P. Harrington wants the rest of us to know how remorseful his client is. Most criminals, of course, express remorse after they’re caught. If Wanamaker had been truly remorseful, he would have confessed a long time ago and not waited to get caught.
Wanamaker has fallen from grace and his high-paid city job. He’s now stocking shelves at Kmart and selling cars.
Once the city’s top economic development official charged with helping a distressed community, Wanamaker says he still wants to help communities rebuild. Hard to imagine putting him in another role in which he is entrusted with public money.
It really is a shame.