by Susan Mikula Campbell
Town of Niagara Supervisor Steve Richards has vowed to clear his name in the 28-count indictment brought against him in State Supreme Court in Lockport last Friday.
A plea of not guilty was entered before Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr. Since then, neither Richards nor his lawyer, Rodney Personius, nor town councilmen known to have been subpoenaed to testify during the preceding grand jury investigation have been willing to comment.
Kloch set Dec. 4 for both Personius and the prosecutor from the attorney general's office, Assistant Attorney General Paul F. McCarthy, to present discovery motions seeking information. Personius also will be able to bring motions to dismiss either all or portions of the charges.
At 9:30 a.m. Dec. 4, Kloch will hear oral arguments and can either rule from the bench or wait and make a written decision shortly thereafter. If the case should proceed to a trial, the date will be April 14, 2014.
As news of the indictment was released last week, state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli said Richards "treated the Town of Niagara like a private hardware store."
Although Richards currently is following his lawyer's instructions not to comment, he did speak out at the Town Board's work session on Oct. 3, angered by what he perceived as a move by some board members to force him out of office or into administrative leave,
As the meeting drew to a close, Richards eyed television crews crowded against the walls of the town's small meeting room and asked why they were there.
"You were told I was going to be voted off the island," he said, adding that he had yet to see the indictment himself.
When Councilman Rob Clark, a political opponent of Richards, called for an executive session, Richards surged on, saying "from this point forward it gets better for me," explaining that a trial would allow discussion, investigation and a chance to respond to charges levied against him. "For two years, this has been driving me nuts," he said.
He reminded television reporters that an indictment was not a conviction and that he and his lawyer would be working to rout out lies and half-truths in the accusations.
"This is the third political hatchet job done on me (in five consecutive terms as supervisor). The last two did not fare well," Richards said. "I'm here to tell the board I'm not going anywhere."
Richards said the people of the town elected him and have kept him in office for 18 years and that the Town Board does not have the right under state law to overset the election.
Clark said he called for an executive session in order to discuss with the town attorney "what should the board do to protect the integrity of the town." He said he also wanted to protect town employees subpoenaed for the grand jury.
Richards pointed out that one of the people sitting at the board table had been arrested and jailed for driving while intoxicated and no town sanction was taken against him before he had his day in court.
Councilman Charles Teixeira, who arrived late at the meeting, said he wanted to ask the lawyer if the governor's new Moreland Commission could be used in this case. The panel, established by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to investigate corruption in government, has come under fire recently in the Town of Evans for allegedly focusing on Republicans.
At the Town of Niagara work session, Councilman Danny Sklarski said that it was the board's prerogative to ask for the town attorney's opinion, but up to this point certain board members have been very diligent about looking over bills related to legal fees and at that point it would be "inappropriate and probably ill advised for the legislative branch (of government) to interfere with the legal system."
Town Attorney Michael Risman said he had no problem on advising the board on what the law is. He added that he was amazed at what already has been in the press about the indictment, which at that point was not a public document. Grand jury proceedings are not supposed to be made public.
The response of one television reporter questioned by Richards on where he got his information was, "We've got sources."
Councilman Marc Carpenter pointed out that Richards is innocent until proven guilty.
"Can we remove him? I don't believe we can," he said, adding that the board, however, does need to know what its options are. "For us to admonish him or whatever might be premature."
After the court appearance before Kloch, news was officially released that Richards is charged with one count of defrauding the government, two counts of grand larceny in the fourth degree, one count of criminal possession of stolen property in the fourth degree, all class D felonies, as well as 11 counts of petit larceny and 13 counts of official misconduct, all misdemeanors.
The indictment alleges that he directed town employees to pick up and deliver property to his personal business, clean a clogged drain at his personal business, and connect a storm drain at a residential rental property he owns to a state storm water line, all using town equipment while on town time. Moreover, Richards allegedly stole numerous industrial supplies belonging to the town, including paint, a drill, and drain cleaner, and stole a shotgun belonging to the Town of Niagara Police Department. The charges are accusations and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty in court.
Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, in a press release announcing the charges, said, "People elected to positions of trust must be held to the highest standard, and those who abuse an office to line their own pockets will face the full legal consequences of their crimes."