By Justin Sondel firstname.lastname@example.org
Niagara Gazette — TOWN OF NIAGARA — Supervisor Steve Richards says it’s much ado about nothing, no more than a private investigator’s routine review of worker’s compensation claim.
For a town councilman, several of his neighbors living in Belden Center and the owner of one local automotive shop, the presence of a private investigator in the town has prompted not only uneasy feelings, but questions about who is being watched, and by whom.
Richards confirmed to the Niagara Gazette that a private investigator has been conducting surveillance at various locations in the town in recent weeks. He said the individual is working for the town’s insurance provider as part of a review of a personnel matter that Richards is not legally allowed to discuss in detail in public.
The investigator’s presence has raised suspicions among some town residents and at least one town official.
On his Facebook page, town councilman and Belden Center resident Rob Clark has chronicled his encounters with a pair of vehicles spotted on several occasions in his neighborhood. Some of Clark’s neighbors have done the same, expressing concerns about the presence of the two cars, one a green Pontiac and the other a red Acura.
“I live in one of those neighborhoods where if someone doesn’t belong people will notice,” Clark said. “The neighbors are all worried.”
H. James Suitor, the town’s chief of police, said there were calls for a suspicious vehicle in Belden Center and after investigating police found that a licensed private investigator was working in the neighborhood, but he did not know the nature of the investigator’s work.
“We don’t have the right to ask who he is investigating,” Suitor said.
Pretoria Street resident Donald Horton said he recently approached the Acura while it was parked in front of his home. Horton said he asked the person in the car to get off of his lawn after being told by the man inside that he was there on “legal business.”
“It makes you feel creeped out,” Horton said.
Ryan Thomason, who lives next door to Clark, said he approached the green Pontiac, snapping photos of the vehicle’s license plate and attempting to get some shots of the person inside. Thomason said the vehicle’s tinted windows obscured his view as did its occupant who attempted to block him by placing a sunscreen over the vehicle’s windshield.
“He’s got the whole town in an uproar right now,” Thomason said. “He’s making a lot of people very uncomfortable.”
Clark recently followed one of the cars — the red Acura — after it spent some time parked in his neighborhood. Clark said the trail led him to Richards Motor Service, the auto garage owned by the town supervisor. Photos posted on Clarks’ Facebook page show Richards talking to the vehicle’s occupant while the pair are standing in the parking lot at his auto repair shop.
Clark’s convinced the investigator has been asked by Richards to follow him and others who, like him, have been interviewed by the FBI in connection with its work on an “ongoing matter” involving what Richards has previously described as “town business.”
“This is ridiculous,” Clark said.
Rich Halleen, a member of the Niagara-Wheatfield School Board and owner of Halleen’s Automotive on Military Road, spotted the red Acura parked across the street from his shop last week, leading him to believe that he too is being watched.
Like Clark, Halleen has been interviewed by FBI agents and state investigators on various issues involving the town. The Halleen family also has been at odds with Richards over various issues in recent years.
As a private business owner, Halleen said he sees no reason why someone investigating an insurance claim would have any interest in him or his shop. He believes something else is going on.
“It’s all about intimidation,” Halleen said.
Susan Koral, a workers compensation specialist for the town’s consulting firm Self Funding Inc., said that investigators are not often hired on compensation cases because they are expensive and do not often yield results.
“We don’t have people followed unless there is good cause,” she said.
However, if there is a strong belief that an employee collecting compensation is working an investigator will be hired, she said.
When an investigator is hired by the town, the consulting company and the town’s third party administrator — FCS Administrators, Inc. — would all have access to and could interact with the investigator.
Richards insisted the private investigator’s work has nothing to do with Clark or anyone other than the individual tied to the town insurance claim. He said the investigator’s presence is not related to any matters involving the work of state or federal authorities.
“If Rob thinks (the investigator) is following him, then Rob is paranoid,” Richards said.
Richards claims Clark has it out for him and went to the FBI to get him in trouble.
“The only person I know being chased around here is me by him,” Richards said.
Richards admitted that the investigator did visit his automotive repair shop. The supervisor said the investigator dropped by to tell him residents had approached his car in an intimidating manner.
“He said the neighbors attacked him,” Richards said.
When asked about the same cars being spotted outside of Halleen’s store last week, Richards declined comment.
The town board held a work session Thursday night, before which the investigator submitted a report to the town.
Richards declined to comment on the investigator’s report when contacted by phone Friday, saying, again, that he will not discuss the ongoing investigation.
Both Clark and Halleen say they have never contacted the FBI, insisting investigators approached them first.
Clark added that private investigators are just one of the issues he’s dealing with.
Clark said he started receiving threatening mail with no return address — including an illustration of a rat — at his home shortly after being contacted by the FBI.
Clark has no proof of the origin of the threatening mail, but can think of no other reason, other than his interview with federal authorities, that he would receive a picture of a rat in the mail.
“I’ve been getting stuff like that since the FBI started investigating,” he said.
Bad blood has been brewing between Clark and Richards for many years, long before Clark was elected to the town board.
During Clark’s 2006 election campaign, Richards said he received anonymous letters threatening to burn down his son’s business if he didn’t support the councilman’s candidacy.
For several weeks during the election campaign, an effigy of Clark hung from a noose outside a business owned by Richards’ son.
Clark was also the subject of a police investigation involving stolen political signs off of Richards’ property, though Richards later dropped the charges.
Clark denies involvement in any of those acts.
“There’s no way in hell me or any of my supporters would have done that,” Clark said.
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Contact reporter Justin Sondel at 282-2311, ext. 2257