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INQUIRY HAUNTS PARKS WORKERS LONG PROBE BY U.S. ATTORNEY, FBI CASTS PALL OVER THEIR LIVES

Last year, 75-year-old Joseph V. Thompson helped blow the whistle on wrongdoings by his superiors in the Buffalo Parks Department.

Since then, like his co-workers and most Buffalo taxpayers, Thompson has been waiting for the U.S. attorney's office and the FBI to complete their investigation.

Now retired from the Parks Department and working a new, full-time job as a night watchman, Thompson still waits and watches -- anxiously scanning each day's news reports for arrests, indictments or some other developments in the 17-month-old parks probe.

"People in the department stuck their necks out. They talked to the FBI and testified before the grand jury," Thompson said during a recent interview in his Buffalo home. "Now they're wondering, 'When will it end? What is going to come of it?' "

Thompson is not alone in his anxiety about the investigation.

"The parks workers just wish it was behind them," said John Scardino, president of Local 264 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers, the union that represents most Parks Department workers. "There's a cloud over them, and they want it to be lifted."

The FBI's investigation was made public a year ago last Monday.

Today, the shadow of Robert E. Delano, the parks commissioner who has been on a leave of absence since February, continues to hang over the department and its 60 full-time workers.

According to employees, the office that served as Delano's command center in the Delaware Park Labor Center has been virtually untouched for the past nine months. Delano's plaques and posters still hang on the walls. The man who replaced Delano, acting Commissioner Stanley Buczkowski, works out of an office in City Hall.

"Delano's office -- it's been like a boarded-up cave since he left," said one veteran worker. "Nobody ever goes in there, except one secretary. It's like he's still the commissioner and it's waiting for him."

This worker -- one of many in the department who was questioned by the FBI and testified before a grand jury -- said he has endured many sleepless nights in the past year, wondering how the investigation would affect him and his family.

The worker said it hurt to watch his department -- practically unnoticed by the public in years past -- become the laughing stock of Western New York when the Delano affair reached its peak earlier this year. He said he was bothered by cartoons and radio spoofs that depicted department workers as a lazy bunch who spent their time doing favors for political cronies.

Although the investigation has largely been out of the spotlight in recent months, workers still agonize over it, this employee said.

"Now, I just wish it was over," the worker said. "I want it to end and I want things back to normal."

Over much of the past year, U.S. Attorney Dennis C. Vacco has maintained that the investigation probably will be over by the end of 1990. But Vacco said Wednesday that potential new developments in the case may extend the investigation into January or February.

"I was really disappointed when I heard it was going to drag on into January or February," Scardino said.

Vacco said he sympathizes with the parks workers and wants to speed things along as much as possible. But the quality and thoroughness of the investigation is more important than its timetable, Vacco said.

Several parks workers interviewed over the past week said they can understand that reasoning but are concerned by rumors that the investigation has stalled and may produce no indictments.

"Some of the guys think Delano will beat it (the investigation)," one employee said. "They think the investigation is so out of focus now that nothing is going to happen with it. If 80 people went before the grand jury, and they have nothing to show for it, what does that mean? Is the case that weak?"

The case is not weak, and there will be indictments, said G. Robert Langford, special agent in charge of the Buffalo FBI office.

"Absolutely, we have a strong case. As soon as the U.S. attorney's office gets through with it, there will be indictments," Langford said.

Langford said he could not comment when asked how many people would be indicted and whether Delano would be among them. He said his agency has focused its investigation on the misuse of city workers and materials, including more than 11 tons of missing swimming pool chlorine.

While declining to discuss indictments, Vacco said, "I will say that the community will get some answers on the management of the parks during the tenure of Robert Delano."

While waiting for those answers, Thompson, who retired in February from the Parks Department, is keeping busy.

He became a controversial figure in the Parks Department story last year when his longtime battle with Delano was spotlighted. Thompson revealed that when he criticized Delano publicly in a January 1986 television interview, Delano assigned him to chip ice and shovel snow. Thompson would report each morning to a locked building and wait outside in freezing weather for a parks worker to pick him up for his day's job assignment. At 71, Thompson was the oldest worker in the city department at the time.

A rock also was hurled through Thompson's home window after the TV interview.

"I still get people telling me they are proud to know me for standing up to that," Thompson said. "Whenever I see people, they still want to know what is happening with the parks case."

But he also received a harassing telephone call about the parks case Wednesday, Thompson said.

Working conditions at the Parks Department have improved markedly since Delano was ousted in favor of Buczkowski, according to Scardino. Labor-management meetings -- never held during Delano's tenure -- have been held with Buczkowski. Overtime work assignments -- dispensed politically under Delano -- are handed out to all workers on a rotating basis.

"These workers are better off with Stan Buczkowski as their boss," Scardino said. "They couldn't continue to work under conditions the way they were."

Buczkowski refused to comment in any way about changes in the department since his replacement of Delano. He also declined to discuss morale in the department.

"It's not for me to judge me or the department I run," he said. "Let others judge it."

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