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When FBI agents searched James Bagarozzo's home, they found a stash of cash, including $3,000 in quarters and $40,000 hidden in his bedroom ceiling.
Bagarozzo, a retired Buffalo parking meter mechanic, agreed to forfeit that money and more as part of plea deal Thursday that could send him to federal prison for up 30 months.
The longtime city employee admitted stealing a total of $210,000 in quarters over an eight-year period by rigging 75 parking meters he was supposed to be fixing.
"I wanted to make sure my family was going to be OK," he told U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara.
Bagarozzo, 57, said he began stealing from the city when he was diagnosed with Crohn's Disease, a chronic inflammatory condition affecting the gastrointestinal tract. He said he was worried about providing for his family.
On top of that, he told the judge, he began gambling at local casinos.
"That's what caused me to be here," he said. "The money was going primarily for gambling. I was going to the casino three or four times a week."
He also informed the judge that he had undergone counseling for his gambling problem.
U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. declined to comment on Bagarozzo's defense except to cite what he called a principle as old as civilization itself.
"You just can't steal at all," Hochul said. "Thou shall not steal, whether you're a public employee or someone who works for a private enterprise."
Bagarozzo is one of two parking meter mechanics arrested by the FBI in December for stealing from city meters.
Lawrence Charles, the other mechanic accused of stealing from the city, took a plea deal Tuesday. Both men pleaded guilty to a felony charge of theft and conversion concerning groups receiving federal funds.
Charles admitted stealing $15,000 in quarters as part of his plea agreement with the government.
"Mr. Bagarozzo didn't just steal money from the community," said Christopher M. Piehota, special agent in charge of the FBI office in Buffalo. "He stole their faith and trust."
Bagarozzo, who once served as head of the city animal shelter, will be required to repay the $210,000 he admitted stealing. His attorney, James Harrington, indicated he would repay the full amount by the time he's sentenced on Dec. 17.
Hochul said the money discovered at Bagarozzo's home - about $54,000 - has been seized and will go toward satisfying the restitution he owes. He said Bagarozzo also plans to hand over another $100,000 from the sale of his home.
One of the questions that remains unanswered is whether Bagarozzo and Charles were working together and, if so, how much?
Charles told Arcara he had learned how to rig the meters from another employee in his department, and later told The Buffalo News that it was Bagarozzo who taught him how to do it.
Bagarozzo denied that Thursday and told Arcara, "We never discussed what we were doing."
During Thursday's court appearance, Assistant U.S. Attorney Maura O'Donnell outlined the eight-year history of Bagarozzo's thefts.
He began stealing between $5,000 and $10,000 a year, she said, but his stealing escalated to the point where he was taking home about $1,000 a week in quarters.
Bagarozzo, she added, would rig the meters so the quarters would remain in the upper compartment instead of falling into the more secure lower compartment.
He would take out fistfuls of quarters, stuff them in his pocket and then deposit them in a bag and take them back to his house, O'Donnell said.
She later told Arcara the city uncovered the wrongdoing as part of an internal investigation that included a private investigator and video surveillance.
"The City of Buffalo," Hochul said, "really deserves credit in this case."

email: pfairbanks@buffnews.com