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Sheriff Timothy B. Howard, elected to lead one of Erie County government’s largest and most important departments, took a part-time job six months ago as a contract employee for a local bank.

Starting in mid-January, Howard parked his county-provided take-home vehicle outside the Larkin Center of Commerce building in Buffalo, sometimes during the business day, sometimes after hours.

He earned $50 an hour inside an M&T Bank office there, working alongside other Sheriff’s Office employees moonlighting to help the bank detect money-laundering and comply with federal regulations.

The work was “honest, honorable and fulfilling," Howard, 64, told The Buffalo News in an email, stressing that he never allowed his second job to interfere with his public duties.

But as word spread that The News was preparing this article, Howard left M&T rather than seek to extend his six-month contract. On Wednesday, just days after his car was again seen outside the M&T office, he said he was no longer a bank employee.

The sheriff oversees nearly $120 million in taxpayer spending each year and leads about 1,000 employees who patrol roads and shoreline, solve crimes and run a jail and prison in upstate New York’s largest county.

How did the sheriff find the time to oversee such a huge department and satisfy a second employer?

He said he worked mostly evenings, weekends and holidays – “although most recently I was sometimes asked to cover day shifts during the week, and did so when my schedule allowed it.” It was understood that any emergency needing his attention would interrupt his work for M&T, he said.

County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said Howard did the right thing by leaving M&T.

Poloncarz, a Democrat, has criticized the Republican sheriff’s job performance over the years.

“These are jobs that require your full-time activity,” Poloncarz said of the county’s five elected leadership positions. “And if you are only putting in part-time hours in the county, for a job that requires full-time activity, it’s doing a disservice to the people who elected you.”

Second job revealed

On a few occasions during standard business hours, and on the Fourth of July, The News saw Howard’s county-issued auto parked for hours outside the Larkin Center of Commerce, where M&T has placed dozens of employees in its compliance programs.

In an email, Howard explained that he was recruited for the bank job late last year or early this year by Security Solutions Group, a local company that had steered people with law-enforcement resumés to M&T’s compliance effort. The sheriff would not identify the SSG employee who recruited him.

M&T has spent tens of millions of dollars enhancing its Bank Secrecy Act and anti-money laundering programs, which caught the attention of the Federal Reserve Board as it reviewed M&T’s pending purchase of Hudson City Bancorp Inc. in New Jersey. The Federal Reserve wanted improvement.

“All banks now are required to take steps to help prevent and detect money laundering by terrorists, drug dealers, other criminals,” M&T spokesman C. Michael Zabel said. “As part of those efforts, financial services companies are obligated to comply with federal ‘know your customer laws.’ ”

Banks must know where customers work or the nature of their businesses to verify that money is flowing between legitimate entities, Zabel said. M&T Bank, like other banks, uses people with law-enforcement experience in its Enhanced Due Diligence unit to mine bank records, Internet search engines and websites that provide background details to corroborate customer information, Zabel said.

Howard, who had allowed other Sheriff’s Office employees to work “second-front” jobs at M&T, said he enjoyed the experience.

“I began working there in mid-January in a manner that could never be considered secretive,” he said.

“My employment, and the associated training programs provided by M&T, resulted in the enhancement of my computer skills, and an opportunity to interact with other law-enforcement personnel in a different setting.”

He added later: “Having completed my commitment, I thanked the bank for this employment opportunity and informed them that I was not interested in extending my contract. I am no longer employed by the bank.”

An unfair standard?

The Erie County Charter, the voter-approved document that sets the framework for government operations, recognizes that the sheriff and the other elected department heads have big jobs. The charter states that each “shall devote his or her whole time to the duties of his or her office and shall hold no other public office.”

Howard said he interprets that phrase as allowing the elected officials to take a second, nonpublic job. Others in county government who have examined the county charter share that opinion. Howard further contends that he should not have to devote “all waking hours” to his sheriff’s duties.

“To suggest otherwise would create a standard to which no one has ever been held,” he said.

The Rev. Eugene L. Pierce, who was deputy superintendent of the county Correctional Facility from 1984 to 1997, said he thinks voters assume the sheriff will give the job his full energies and serve without being distracted by a second employer.

“I think all voters have the expectation of maximizing public safety. And the means to do that is to have the highest elected law-enforcement officer on the job at all times," said Pierce, who today sits on a volunteer panel seeking to upgrade the conditions that have led to expensive lawsuits, serious injuries and deaths in the county’s lockups.

“He should have never accepted the job,” Pierce said.

High status, middling pay

Asked whether he considers his yearly county salary of $79,000 too low, Howard responded that it is less than what many other sheriffs or even town police chiefs earn. The sheriff’s pay was set in 1996 by a salary review commission that determined the compensation for all of Erie County’s elected leaders except the district attorney, whose earnings are set at the state level.

Today, the $79,000 ranks only in the midrange of sheriffs’ salaries paid elsewhere in New York. Sheriffs in many smaller counties earn more than Howard. And several of his own high-ranking employees earn more than he does, including Undersheriff Mark N. Wipperman, who is paid about $111,000 annually to run the department’s day-to-day affairs.

Throughout county government, you can find examples of people making more than their elected bosses. But the elected leaders have an entirely different status: They are paid regardless of whether they show up for work. They do not swipe a time card and need not maintain set hours. Erie County’s elected leaders can come and go as they please because the voters determine whether their performance rates another two or four years in office.

Howard in November was re-elected to serve four more years, as he drew 52 percent of the vote in a three-way race. It was his third election victory. If Howard wanted, he could work for M&T Bank for 50 hours a week, never set foot in Sheriff’s Office headquarters, and break no county law.

Howard has other income besides the $79,000 salary. The state will pay out an approximately $52,000 pension for him this year as a State Police retiree, according to pension records posted on the website SeeThroughNY. He used to employ his wife as his special assistant, and she will collect a pension of nearly $25,000 this year. Those three sources of household income add up to some $156,000.

Then, at $50 an hour for 16 to 20 hours a week, Howard was able to gross at least $800 a week with M&T or more than than $20,000 over 26 weeks. Howard would not confirm that he made $50 an hour or worked about 20 hours a week – the figures were provided by sources familiar with his arrangement.

Duties narrow

The sheriff is one of those rare county officials whose scope of duties has narrowed in recent years. For example, when Howard took office, the City of Buffalo placed all of its male defendants into the Erie County Holding Center to await arraignment, taxing the already-busy facility. But the city opened its own lockup in 2012, easing the strain on the county jail.

The sheriff no longer has responsibility for the team that provides courthouse security. Those officers work for the state.

Since he is not a medical professional, the sheriff no longer oversees the health staff in the Holding Center and the Correctional Facility. The county health commissioner formally took charge of those employees in 2009.

With Erie County seeking to settle a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit demanding better conditions inside the county’s jail and prison, two county executives, Chris Collins and later Poloncarz, jumped in to assist with permanent long-term improvements to the facilities that the sheriff oversees.

In a display of Howard’s detachment from one aspect of jail management – the medical care – the sheriff told a lawyer deposing him in a wrongful death case in 2011 that he did not recall ever seeing a National Commission on Correctional Health Care report, completed for Erie County at Erie County’s request, in 2008.

email: mspina@buffnews.com