Paul Marinaccio Sr. remembers when he was first told that his longtime bookkeeper was embezzling money from his construction company.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I was so shaken up I couldn’t drive.”
Debora Gramza, the bookkeeper, was the daughter of a man who befriended Marinaccio in the early 1960s when he came to the United States as a teenager from his native Italy.
“She was like family,” he said. “I trusted her with everything. She handled all my book work and credit cards.
“She created such a nightmare,” he added. “I don’t wish this on my worst enemy.”
Gramza, 55, of Cheektowaga, pleaded guilty this week in Erie County Court to stealing $704,353 from Accadia Site Contracting of Depew by forging checks to herself without the company’s permission for nearly five years.
The bookkeeper would write checks on the company’s account to “Debbie Snowco,” ranging from $1,500 to $7,000 a week, and deposit them in a bank account in that name, then withdraw the money and deposit it in her own account, Marinaccio said.
“The accountants should have caught it but didn’t,” he said. “They should have contacted me about the checks. They said they took Debbie’s word.”
He said the problem came to light earlier this year when the bonding company that he uses for construction projects said his company’s earnings reports were wrong and threatened to stop bonding him.
So in July he asked a former accountant who used to handle his books to go over them and find what the problem was. In two days, she discovered the checks that Gramza had been writing to herself.
When authorities questioned her, she immediately admitted writing the checks, and she was charged, Marinaccio said.
“We’re finally seeing some daylight,” he said, noting that he has paid off what was owed to the banks.
He said he is trying to recover some of the money from the banks, since he was the only one who could sign the company checks, and from the accountants.
Marinaccio immigrated to the United States in 1963, with just five years of schooling. But he learned to speak English and went to work at a gas station, farm and bakery to help support his parents. At 19, he started a construction company. The hardworking man became a self-made millionaire through his road construction companies, including Accadia Site Contracting.
In an unrelated civil case, Marinaccio won a $1.6 million award from a jury in a lawsuit he filed in 2006 against the Town of Clarence and a developer of a nearby subdivision for diverting runoff onto his 40-acre property, creating a wetland full of frogs.
Marinaccio has a deep-seated fear of frogs from his days as a child working with his family in a vineyard in Italy where he wandered onto a nearby property for figs and was chased away by a man holding bullfrogs. He said that in the spring and summer months, the frogs show up on his driveway and lawn, keeping him inside his home.
Marinaccio’s seven-year court fight finally ended earlier this year, as the State Court of Appeals ruled he was not owed the $250,000 in punitive damages that the jury awarded him in 2009.
In the bookkeeper case, Gramza pleaded guilty to second-degree grand larceny, first-degree falsifying business records and first-degree offering a false instrument for filing. The crimes happened from Dec. 12, 2008, to July 29, 2013, according to Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III.
Sedita said Gramza also failed to declare the money as income on her New York State income taxes. She owes the state $32,568 in taxes.
She faces a prison term of up to 15 years when sentenced Jan. 14 by Erie County Judge Kenneth F. Case.
The case was prosecuted by Assistant District Attorneys Candace K. Vogel and Gary M. Ertel of the Special Investigations and Prosecutions Bureau.