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Theft By Ex-City Official Shocks Even Long Suspicious Lawmakers

10:10 AM, Dec 1, 2011   |    comments
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BUFFALO, NY - "I thought he was a mean bureaucrat...but I didn't know he rose to the level of being a crook," said Buffalo Common Council President David A. Franczyk, regarding Timothy E. Wanamaker, the former top aid to Mayor Byron Brown who plead guilty Tuesday to stealing money which was supposed to boost economic development efforts.

Wanamaker served as director of the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. (BERC), a city development agency (now defunct) which has been the subject of other government probes.

Wanamaker, who was originally hired in 2003 by former Mayor Anthony Masiello to serve as executive director of Buffalo's Office of Strategic Planning, admitted in U.S. District Court that he used a BERC credit card to ring up $30,000 in personal expenses before leaving Buffalo in 2008 to become a City Manager in California.

"Red flags came up years ago," said Franczyk, noting that he and other city lawmakers held suspicions regarding Wanamaker, to the point where they passed a resolution in April of 2008 asking the Brown administration to turn over BERC travel expense records dating back to June 1, 2006.

"At that time, the chairperson of the Community Development Committee (Delaware District Council Member) Mike LoCurto, started asking a lot of questions," Franczyk recalled.

"We were concerned with excessive travel by Tim Wanamaker," LoCurto told WGRZ-TV.

Both lawmakers felt the administration "dragged its feet" in providing an accounting of BERC travel expenses, until they were finally furnished 2-1/2 months after their request. "By that time Wanamaker had left," said LoCurto.

The documents they were provided showed Wanamaker and other city employees, including Mayor Brown, had racked up $37,000 in travel costs over in just two years.  "The scale of it was surprising," LoCurto said.

But the documents were mere summaries, listing who traveled on behalf of BERC's efforts, the purpose the trip, the dates and destinations of the travelers, and the total cost of each trip.

It did not break down individual charges, which was something done later by federal investigators, and which revealed the excess to which Wanamaker in particular was spending...not all of which was legitimate expenses, according to prosecutors.

"The egregious nature of it was even more than I expected," said LoCurto. "The stays at the fancy hotels and paying for family members...if we hadn't been diligent about requesting it, I think it would still be going on now," he said.

WEB EXTRA: Read the Plea Agreement in the Wanamaker Case

While he believes Wanamaker is ultimately responsible for his own actions, Franczyk also believes a lack of accountability by Mayor Brown is in part responsible for Wanamaker's ability to carry on his malfeasance.

"Yes,...that was their guy...who was watching him?" Franczyk asked.

Through Brown's spokesperson, Michael DeGeorge, 2 On Your Side made several requests on speak to the Mayor on Wednesday.
After several hours, DeGeorge eventually directed us instead to Scott Billman, lead attorney for the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency, which has absorbed the functions once performed by BERC.

Asked if he could assure taxpayers that steps have been taken to prevent future thefts of their money, Billman replied, "Yes I think I can. The organization that Mr. Wanamaker worked out of and the credit card associated with it has been dismantled."

Billman also insisted that BERC was dissolved at the behest of the Mayor once discrepancies were detected.

"The city, under the Mayor's direction, has greatly curtailed any travel," he said.

2 On Your Side also spoke with prosecutors regarding how long Wanamaker had been the subject of a criminal probe.

Assistant U.S Attorney Paul Campana, who is prosecuting the case, told WGRZ, "before July (2011) Mr. Wanamaker was interviewed by investigators from HUD and the FBI."

Campana's supervisor, United States Attorney for Western New York William Hochul, said the investigation was triggered in part by a HUD audit, (which you can click here to read) which raised questions about the way federal funds were being spent in Buffalo.

Among the conclusions reached by auditors was that while the city claimed it had been actively monitoring the activities of BERC, city officials could not provide evidence of such monitoring.

"Frankly this is the first step in what we reported already will be a continuing investigation," said Hochul, while noting that as part of his plea bargain Wanamaker has been ordered to cooperate with investigators.

As to whether other city officials might face charges, Hochul would only say, "we certainly will follow all facts and leads wherever they take us and if there is sufficient evidence of a criminal violation, charges will be forthcoming."

Click on the video player to watch our story from 2 On Your Side Reporter Dave McKinley and Photojournalist Norm Fisher .

WGRZ-TV, wgrz.com

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