Lawrence Charles claims his introduction to wrongdoing was rooted in the “culture of corruption” that existed in Buffalo’s parking enforcement department.
Yes, he alone made the decision to steal $15,000 in quarters from city parking meters, but he also felt emboldened by the perception that others were doing it.
On Tuesday, Charles paid the price – six months in federal prison.
“No one forced him to steal,” said J. Glenn Davis, Charles’ defense attorney. “That was his decision and, as we know, it was the wrong decision.”
Charles’ sentence is the latest development in a federal investigation that has now sent two city workers to prison and implicated at least one other.
And there may be more. “It is ongoing,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Maura K. O’Donnell said of the FBI investigation into parking meter thefts.
Like his fellow parking meter mechanic, James V. Bagarozzo, Charles stole quarters from meters he was supposed to be fixing.
Bagarozzo was sentenced in August to 2½ years in prison after admitting he stole $210,000 over an eight-year period.
“You think it’s just nickels, dimes and quarters,” said U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr., “but in the end, it amounts to more than most bank robberies.”
Charles, 40, apologized to U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara for his conduct and said he regrets ever getting involved in the thefts.
Davis said his client knew it was wrong and actually went to a more senior employee when he discovered a broken meter filled with money.
“The employee told him, ‘We don’t talk about that,’ ” Davis told Arcara. “That was his introduction to what I call the culture of corruption.”
Charles and Bagarozzo were arrested in late 2011 after a joint investigation by City Hall and the FBI uncovered evidence of the thefts. City officials began to suspect wrongdoing when a review of parking meter revenues by new Parking Commissioner Kevin J. Helfer revealed a dramatic disparity between money collected from individual meters and money collected from pay-and-display machines.
Helfer inspected some of the meters and found many of them rigged so quarters would remain in the upper compartment instead of flowing into the lower compartment.
Shortly afterward, he went to Mayor Byron W. Brown with his suspicions and the city authorized an internal investigation.
Arcara described Helfer’s actions as courageous given the allegations of widespread corruption in the department.
“He was certainly on the white horse,” the judge said, “and the taxpayers of the City of Buffalo have to be very grateful.”
Charles pleaded guilty in December to a single felony count of theft and conversion concerning programs receiving federal funds.