The FBI is expanding its investigation into parking meter thefts in Buffalo to at least two former city employees who collected thousands of dollars in quarters as part of their job.
Sources close to the investigation said the targets are Mark S. Carlson and Franklin A. Lopez Jr., two parking meter collectors who are no longer on the job.
The FBI declined to comment, but three sources familiar with the investigation said it began after Kevin Helfer, the city’s parking commissioner, found Carlson and Lopez with an unauthorized second vault in their city-owned vehicle.
“They worked together on one truck,” said one of the sources. “They were a team.”
Helfer would not comment on the expanded investigation but at a news conference said, “If there were others, they will be prosecuted.”
Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda also indicated the investigation is still open.
“We are looking at other people,” he told reporters. “The case is ongoing. There may be more to it.”
Lopez and Carlson could not be reached to comment Friday, but one source said they left their City Hall jobs after Helfer discovered them with the second vault.
Their job, according to sources, was to empty parking meter canisters filled with quarters into a portable vault they transported to and from City Hall.
The allegation is that they used an unauthorized second vault to steal from the city, sources said.
The news of a growing FBI investigation came on the same day that James Bagarozzo, a former parking meter mechanic, was sentenced to 2½ years in prison for his role in a separate scam.
Quarter by quarter, meter by meter, Bagarozzo accumulated quite a fortune. By his own admission, he stole $210,000 during an eight-year period.
“The facts in this case are egregious,” U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara said in sentencing Bagarozzo to prison on Friday. “He systematically stole money … from parking meters he was entrusted to repair.”
Bagarozzo is one of two parking meter mechanics arrested by the FBI in December 2011 and accused of breaking and rigging meters they were supposed to be fixing.
Both he and Lawrence Charles, a meter mechanic who admitted stealing $15,000 in quarters, pleaded guilty last year to felony charges of theft and conversion.
Almost overnight, their crimes garnered local and national headlines.
“What began as a theft of nickels and dimes in the end was the equivalent of a major bank heist,” U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. said at a news conference Friday.
Several law enforcement officials referred to the brazen nature of Bagarozzo’s crimes – they showed a video of him stuffing his pockets with quarters – and suggested his wrongdoing strikes at the heart of what public servants are supposed to do.
“These series of actions by Bagarozzo represent the ultimate betrayal of the public’s trust,” said Holly L. Hubert, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI in Buffalo,
Helfer, the man investigators credit with discovering the thefts, called Bagarozzo’s sentencing the culmination of a case that took thousands of man hours to build.
“I think today is about justice, about rebuilding the public’s trust,” he told reporters.
The video showing Bagarozzo taking quarters out of the meters and then stuffing them into his pocket was taken by a team of private investigators hired by the city.
The owner of the firm, Empire Investigations in Buffalo, spoke for the first time Friday about their work on the case, an investigation that took nearly three months, 800 to 900 man hours and included surveillance and undercover video cameras.
“I’ve had a litany of cases involving corporate theft," said Empire owner Paul H. Lawrence. “But in my 20 years, I’ve never seen anything of this magnitude."
Bagarozzo, 58, said he began stealing from the city when he became ill in 2003 and grew worried about providing for his wife and two teenage girls. He was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, a chronic inflammatory condition affecting the gastrointestinal system.
Over time, he also started to gamble at local casinos and, according to his lawyer, James P. Harrington, his hobby eventually became an addiction.
“It’s no less an addiction than a drug addiction,” Harrington said in court Friday. “And over time, Mr. Bagarozzo succumbed to it.”
Bagarozzo, in a plea to the court, suggested his arrest may have saved his life.
“I have hit rock bottom,” he told Arcara. And now “I have come back to life.”
Prosecutors tell a far different story of the Bagarozzo they know.
They describe his actions as an orchestrated scheme, a pattern of criminal activity that lasted eight years and occurred on an almost daily basis.
They also claim that by the time he was caught, Bagarozzo was spending half of his work day stealing from the city.
“The crimes committed by James Bagarozzo and Lawrence Charles were massive violations of the public trust,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Maura O’Donnell told Arcara.
O’Donnell said Bagarozzo started out stealing between $5,000 and $10,000 a year, but the thefts escalated to the point where he was taking home about $1,000 a week in quarters.
Bagarozzo, she told the court, broke about 70 to 75 meters as part of his scheme and rigged them so the quarters would remain in the upper compartment instead of falling into the more secure lower compartment.
He would then take out fistfuls of quarters, stuff them in his pocket, deposit them in a bag in his city-owned truck and take them back to his house during his lunch break.
Bagarozzo, a longtime city employee who once served as head of the animal shelter, has repaid about 75 percent of what he stole from the city and promised to pay the balance after his sentencing.
The money he repaid City Hall includes about $54,000 the FBI seized from his home, including $40,000 hidden in his bedroom ceiling.
Well known in North Buffalo, where he has been politically active for decades, Bagarozzo submitted more than 130 letters of support before his sentencing, including one from a Buffalo Common Council member.
“Through his political activity, his involvement in the community and his interactions with those around him, I have found Jim to be a loyal friend, a devoted husband and father and a caring individual," Delaware Council Member Michael J. LoCurto said in a letter to Arcara.
LoCurto said he has known Bagarozzo since he first became involved in politics 14 years ago.