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Lawrence Charles needed cash and found an easy way to get it - stealing quarters from the parking meters he was supposed to be fixing.
Charles, a parking meter mechanic for the City of Buffalo, on Tuesday admitted stealing $15,000 in quarters as part of a plea deal that could send him to prison for up to a year.
"It was me being foolish and stupid," Charles told U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara. "I needed some extra money, and I was basically shown how to get it by another individual in the department."
"Didn't you think you would get caught?" Arcara asked him.
"Yes, it crossed my mind many times," Charles answered.
Later, outside the courtroom, Charles, 40, said the city employee who showed him how to steal from the meters was James V. Bagarozzo, another parking meter mechanic accused of stealing from the city.
Bagarozzo, who is accused of stealing about $210,000, is scheduled to plead guilty Thursday.
Both men were arrested in December after a joint investigation by City Hall and the FBI uncovered evidence of the thefts.
Charles, as part of his plea deal, admitted stealing over a four-year period starting in 2007 and ending last December. He also acknowledged rigging meters in order to make it easier to steal.
"Any time you have a public official, you have a duty of trust," said U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. "He not only abused his position of trust by stealing, he rigged machines so it was easier to steal."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Maura K. O'Donnell said Charles pleaded guilty to a single felony count of theft and conversion concerning programs receiving federal funds. In addition to possible jail time, he will be required to pay $15,000 in restitution to the city.
City officials began to suspect wrongdoing when a review of parking meter revenues revealed a dramatic disparity between money collected from Buffalo's individual meters and money collected from its pay-and-display machines.
When Kevin J. Helfer, the former Common Council member who now serves as parking enforcement commissioner, inspected some of the meters, he found them damaged so that quarters would remain in the meter's upper compartment instead of flowing through a metal slot into the lower compartment.
By all accounts, that made it possible for Charles to steal.
"We want to make sure we have good stewards of the city's limited resources," said Christopher M. Piehota, special agent in charge of the FBI office in Buffalo.
"And what these guys did was pretty basic - they stole from the city."
Now that Charles has pleaded guilty, he is expected to be fired from his City Hall job. He and Bagarozzo are currently suspended without pay.
Both Piehota and Hochul credited the administration of Mayor Byron W. Brown with uncovering the thefts and conducting its own internal investigation.

email: pfairbanks@buffnews.com