For at least 18 months, FBI agents and the New York State Attorney General’s Office have been investigating Steven C. Richards, a feisty businessman who is now in his fifth term as supervisor of the Town of Niagara.
Richards knows that authorities are investigating allegations that he has misused his public office, his attorney said Wednesday, and Richards vehemently denies any wrongdoing.
“This investigation has been under way for at least 18 months that I’m aware of,” said Rodney O. Personius, an attorney hired by Richards in connection with the probe. “In a general way, what they have been looking at is apparently allegations that Mr. Richards is misusing his public office to benefit himself and his auto repair business. He absolutely denies it.
“Mr. Richards is an honest straight shooter who has always kept his private business separate from his government duties. He’s not happy about this investigation, but he’s not backing down, either.”
So far, no charges have been filed against Richards or any other Town of Niagara official.
But the investigation appeared to be heating up this week, as FBI agents visited town offices to conduct interviews Monday. During a meeting of the Town Board on Tuesday, town officials engaged in heated debate about legal bills for the investigation.
According to Town Clerk Sylvia Virtuoso, Monday’s visit to town offices by the FBI was approximately the fourth in the last 18 months.
No town records were seized by the FBI agents Monday, said Virtuoso, who is in charge of maintaining town documents. “They did take away a very minimal number of records the first time they came here,” she said.
Exactly what are the agents investigating?
“I don’t know, but I am 100 percent sure it has nothing to do with me,” Virtuoso said.
One person who definitely is under investigation is Richards, a Republican who has been popular with town voters since he won his first four-year term in November 1995, three sources familiar with the probe confirmed Wednesday.
The investigation has focused on allegations that Richards has used his government position, and possibly town equipment, to help his business, Richards Motor Service in Niagara, sources familiar with the probe told The Buffalo News.
Personius, a former federal prosecutor who is one of the region’s top defense attorneys, said he has spoken with state attorneys several times about the allegations against Richards. Personius said he has given state attorneys information that counters allegations that other parties have made against Richards.
“I have not spoken to the state attorney about this in about six months,” Personius said. “Steve Richards is very popular and highly respected by the voters, who have elected him five times. I don’t see any indication that he has done anything improper.”
One person who strongly supports Richards is State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, perhaps Niagara County’s most visible officeholder.
“I would be totally shocked” if the investigation turns up proof that Richards abused his office, Maziarz said Wednesday.
“I’ve known Steve for about 20 years. He’s a hard worker who always fights for things that are good for the town, not for himself,” Maziarz said.
“I know there is a lot of political backbiting in the Town of Niagara, and I am absolutely certain that Steve is the victim of that.”
Other than confirming that agents were in Town Hall on Monday, the Buffalo office of the FBI declined to comment. The State Attorney General’s Office also declined to comment.
Richards could not be reached to comment Wednesday.
Located on the border of the City of Niagara Falls, the town comprises 9 square miles in the southwest portion of Niagara County. The town’s population was reported at 8,378 in the 2010 census.