By Rick Pfeiffer
Niagara Gazette — LOCKPORT — Town of Niagara Supervisor Steven Richards let his lawyer do the talking at his arraignment Friday, in State Supreme Court in Lockport, on a 28-count public corruption indictment.
The 18-year town supervisor entered a plea of not guilty to the charges and his defense attorney, Rodney Personius, immediately began to attack the case brought by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.
"We did try to work with the attorney general's office to keep this from going forward," Personius said. "Reasonable men differed (on what the evidence in the case shows) and we're happy to let this land in a public courtroom. We now have an opportunity to fully vet this in a proper setting."
Before entering his client's not guilty plea, Personius told Supreme Court Justice Richard Kloch Sr. there appeared to be multiple defects in the indictment. The former federal prosecutor and veteran defense attorney said the indictment failed to indict where in New York state Richards' crimes occurred and said some of his alleged crimes were not crimes at the time they may have happened.
Personius also said the statute of limitations may have run out on some of the alleged crimes.
Kloch, himself, noted that a felony theft charge in the indictment seemed to claim that the crime occurred from March of 2002 through March of 2012.
"Either that's the longest theft in all mankind or there's more to be looked at here," the judge said.
Kloch suggested that Personius and state prosecutors would be able to make arguments to him over those issues. Kloch set a December hearing date for those arguments.
Assistant Attorney General Paul McCarthy told Kloch, "This case is ready for trial. The investigation is complete."
The indictment accuses Richards of engaging in an ongoing scheme to steal town property and use town employees and equipment for his own personal gain. The case was investigated by the Joint Task Force on Public Integrity, which is a cooperative effort between the state attorney general, the state comptroller and the FBI.
"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 released after Richards' arraignment. "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."
Richards is charged with four felonies and 24 misdemeanor crimes. They include one count of defrauding the government, two counts of fourth-degree grand larceny, one count of fourth-degree criminal possession of stolen property, 11 counts of petit larceny and 13 counts of official misconduct.
“This official treated the Town of Niagara like a private hardware store,” DiNapoli said. “He had complete disregard for taxpayer property and must be held accountable for this wrongdoing."
The indictment charges that, beginning in 2001, Richards engaged in a scheme to steal goods and use town resources for his own personal benefit. Among the claims are allegations 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.
Investigators charge that all of that work involved the use of town equipment and employees who were working on town time.
Richards is also accused of stealing numerous industrial supplies belonging to the town, including paint, a drill, and drain cleaner. He is also accused of taking a shotgun from the town police department.
Kloch released Richards on his own recognizance. He faces a maximum of two and 1/3 to seven years in state prison if convicted of the highest charges in the indictment.
Personius said Richards was ready to defend himself and had no intention of leaving the supervisor's post while the case is pending.
"Our understanding is, that as an elected official, he should be able to continue in office as he has for the last 18 years," Personius said.