LOCKPORT – The amounts in question weren’t large, but they were large enough to give Town of Niagara Supervisor Steven C. Richards a criminal record and force him out of office.
Richards, who resigned Friday as part of a plea deal, admitted Monday that he used town personnel and equipment for the benefit of his business.
State Supreme Court Justice Christopher J. Burns has agreed to place Richards on three years’ probation when he returns to court July 14.
Richards, who was in his 19th year in office, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of official misconduct for directing town employees to drive a town vehicle to Lancaster on May 28, 2010. There, they picked up a catch basin, also known as a sewer receiver, and delivered it to Richards’ auto repair shop, where it was installed in the middle of the parking lot.
The heavy metal object was paid for on a town account, Assistant Attorney General Diane M. LaVallee said, although she said Richards reimbursed that account in 2010.
The operation involved at least three town workers, a town pickup truck and a front-end loader.
“I used my authority as Town of Niagara supervisor to obtain benefits for myself,” Richards said in court, reading from a statement.
The plea agreement included a restitution payment to the town of $1,240.37, a check that Richards wrote last week, in exchange for a promise from Burns that he would not serve any time behind bars.
Burns could have sent Richards to jail for a year, but the judge said he got the impression that incarcerating Richards was never the state’s main goal.
Rather, Burns said, “it’s to uncover behavior and obtain restitution.”
LaVallee agreed, saying, “The amount, although any larceny by a public official is serious, is relatively minor.”
The restitution covers all the charges in the indictment, which originally included 28 counts of misuse of town resources and appropriation of town property, dating from 2001.
“Being that the office has been vacated and restitution paid, it is my intention to place you on three years’ probation,” Burns told Richards.
Burns had dismissed five of the original charges, three because the statute of limitations had run out and two because of insufficient evidence.
But if there had been no plea bargain, Richards, a 61-year-old Republican, would have faced trial on three felony charges and 20 misdemeanors.
Richards declined to answer questions after court, although he and defense co-counsel Rodney O. Personius did stop to pose for a Buffalo News photographer in the parking lot of the Niagara County Courthouse.
Richards’ other attorney, Scott R. Hapeman, stood beside Richards in court as the plea was entered. Afterward, he read a brief statement to the media.
“After considerable deliberation, Mr. Richards determined that this resolution serves not only the best interests of his family, but also the best interests of the residents and employees of the Town of Niagara. Mr. Richards apologizes to the community for taking advantage of his office in this instance but remains steadfast that the town is now in a far better position fiscally and from a quality-of-life perspective than it was when he took office 19 years ago,” Hapeman said.
The state prosecutor said that Richards’ guilty plea would have automatically ousted him from office but that the resignation was part of the agreement. She said Town Board members had expressed concern that Richards cleaned out his office and took “every file in the office” with him.
LaVallee said Town Attorney Michael B. Risman reviewed the items taken and, “as an officer of the court,” found that Richards had not taken anything important. LaVallee said Risman will give the board a list of everything Richards took with him.
“He has advised me the defendant will continue to work with the Town Board for a smooth transition of power,” LaVallee said.
Councilman Danny W. Sklarski, who had been designated deputy supervisor, will be in charge for the time being. An election for a new supervisor will be held in November.