TOWN OF NIAGARA – The Town Board was told Thursday that there is nothing it can do to force Supervisor Steven C. Richards out of office unless he is convicted of a felony or a crime in violation of his oath of office.
Town Attorney Michael Risman delivered the results of his research at the conclusion of a work session Thursday night.
Board members had asked for the information last week during a heated discussion about the charges Richards is facing.
Richards was arraigned Oct. 4 in State Supreme Court in Lockport on 28 counts that accuse him of using public employees, materials and equipment for his own benefit since 2001. The charges capped an 18-month investigation by the FBI and state Comptroller’s Office that included the seizure of town records, subpoenas of key town officials and a two-week grand jury session.
For weeks, town officers had been aware of the investigation but had not spoken of it publicly. Now the court case has moved to the center ring of most work sessions and meetings, prompting arguments and questions by councilmen.
Risman explained Richards’ situation by pointing to the example of Erie County Legislator George Holt Jr., who tried to keep his office after he pleaded guilty to charges of sales tax evasion in 2007. Holt lost his appeal of the Erie County attorney’s opinion in state court.
Risman added that there is no provision under town law to remove an elected official in this type of situation.
“You’re innocent until proven guilty,” he told the councilmen.
Councilman Robert Clark, a political opponent of the supervisor, said his own research on the topic led him to the public integrity department of the state Attorney General’s Office in Buffalo. He said he was told that Risman needed to write to the office to get an opinion on the matter. Risman would need direction from a majority of the board in the form of a resolution, it was noted.
Richards said three board members would need to support a resolution to come up at Tuesday’s meeting.
Clark said he wanted to know how to respond to questions from the public about why Richards was not put on administrative leave.
Deputy Supervisor Danny Sklarski, who frequently sides with Richards, questioned the propriety of asking the Attorney General’s Office for an opinion on a case it is prosecuting. Sklarski pointed out that because the same office charged Richards, the opinion could be “perhaps slanted.”
“They’ve already determined which direction they want to go,” he said. “It [the opinion] could be skewed.”
Risman said that the opinions of that office are only advisory.
Councilman Charles Teixeira noted that it would be important for the board to have something in writing. He said that, in any case, Richards would be entitled to his “day in court.”
“If you guys allow me to get there,” the supervisor responded. He said he believed the discussion needed to be held in a separate forum. “You should know better,” he said.
“You’ll never hear me speak of this again,” Richards announced. He said any questions or inquires should be directed to his attorney, Rodney Personius.