LOCKPORT – Town of Niagara Supervisor Steven C. Richards treated the town “like a private hardware store” officials said Friday as a 28-count indictment was unsealed accusing him of using town employees and equipment for his own benefit for the past dozen years.
State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman and Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli accused Richards of engaging in an ongoing scheme going back to 2001 to steal goods and town resources, using town employees to deliver and pick up items for his family-owned company, Richards Motor Service.
“No public official is above the law, least of all one who used a town’s property and employees to further his own interests,” Schneiderman said in a statement.
DiNapoli said, “This official treated the Town of Niagara like a private hardware store. He had complete and utter disregard for taxpayer property and must be held accountable for this wrongdoing.”
Richards, 60, who has been town supervisor for 18 years, was outspoken about his innocence at a contentious Town Board meeting Thursday night. But on Friday he remained mum both inside and outside of the courtroom, as directed by his attorney, Rodney Personius.
Richards was charged with one count of defrauding the government, two counts of fourth-degree grand larceny, and one count of fourth-degree criminal possession of stolen property – all felonies – as well as 11 counts of petit larceny and 13 counts of official misconduct – all misdemeanors. He faces a maximum of 2∑ to seven years in state prison if he is convicted of the highest counts.
State Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr. released Richards on his own recognizance, and he was ordered to report to the State Police Barracks in Lockport to be processed and fingerprinted. A trial was set for April 14, with a pretrial hearing on Dec. 4.
Assistant Attorney General Paul McCarthy confirmed that a stolen gun charge was part of the indictment, alleging that Richards stole a shotgun that belonged to the town Police Department.
According to the indictment, beginning in 2001, Richards “engaged in a scheme” to steal goods and use town resources for his personal business, directing town employees to pick up and deliver property, clean a clogged drain for his business, and connect a storm drain at a residential rental property he owns using town equipment on town time. Richards also allegedly stole numerous supplies belonging to town, including paint, a drill and drain cleaner.
Richards and a number of town employees were called to testify during the two-week grand jury investigation.
Personius said in court that a number of the charges have statute of limitations issues and have expired. He said he and Richards tried to work with the attorney general’s office to stop the case from going forward.
“Reasonable minds differed, so we are here now, and we are happy to finally have this chance to lay this bare in a public forum,” Personius said.
Asked by media if the state has a strong case, McCarthy said afterwards, “A grand jury returned an indictment, and it will be up to a jury to make a determination.”
At Thursday night’s Town Board meeting, Richards called the case a political conspiracy and remained adamant that the allegations were fabricated by enemies he has faced during his 18 years as supervisor.
Richards refused to go into executive session with the board to discuss whether he should be asked to step down while the case is ongoing.
“I was told the board was going to vote me off the island,” Richards said Thursday night. “We’re going to discuss it right here.”
Richards then walked out of the session while the councilmen continued to discuss what the board needed to do. Town Attorney Michael Risman said he will research the matter to determine what could be done.
“Read the state constitution,” said Richards after he returned to the meeting. “I’m not going anywhere.”
When asked on Friday whether Richards should be asked to step down, Personius said, “Our understanding of the law is that as an elected official, he should be allowed to continue to serve the Town of Niagara as he has for the past 18 years and that would only become an issue if, after trial, they think he should. These are allegations at this point, and if you look at the nature of these allegations, I don’t think it puts into question his ability to continue to serve the town.”
The board is expected to continue discussion on the matter at its Oct. 10 session.
Richards, long a popular figure in the community, followed his father, Calvin Richards, who was supervisor for more than a decade in the late 1980s and 1990s.
Niagara Correspondent Thad Komorowski contributed to this report. email: firstname.lastname@example.org