To many people who knew Robert C. Piscitello, he was a pillar of the community.
Those who encountered him as a church volunteer, or as a former trustee at Shea's Performing Arts Center, were shocked in January, when he walked into federal court and took a felony plea deal, admitting that he failed to pay taxes on $2.3 million in income.
But some of Piscitello's former business associates insist they were not surprised in the least.
In fact, they say the feds gave Piscitello a break by letting him plead to a tax crime.
In a series of lawsuits, they accuse him of using the Internet to systematically steal more than $4 million from an Amherst-based chemical company for more than a decade, where Piscitello was company controller.
"These crimes didn't just affect me. They affected our 80 employees and their families," said Gary A. Robinson, former owner of the company, Innovative Chemical Corp. "Because of Bob's thefts, we couldn't give raises. We cut benefits. We cut back on vacation and holidays. We didn't pay suppliers on time. We probably could have hired a lot more workers if we weren't losing all that money."
Piscitello, 44, a bespectacled, soft-spoken man who lives in the Town of Tonawanda, denies stealing company funds. His supporters call him a decent, honorable man who has worked hard to help his church and other groups. He formerly served as the volunteer treasurer at the Church of the Advent in Kenmore and was on the board of trustees at Shea's, where he and his wife, Wendy, were major donors. Friends said he is also active with a group that teaches mentally and physically challenged youngsters to ride horses.
The plea deal surprised the Rev. Terry W. Bull, pastor of the Episcopal church where Piscitello served as treasurer for two years.
"Bob also read Scriptures and served as an usher," Bull said. "He was kind of a bashful guy, who was dedicated to family, the church and other charities."
Under his plea deal, Piscitello admitted to filing a false tax return. He faces up to three years in prison and a fine up to $100,000. Prosecutors said his crimes cost the government $648,000 in tax revenue between 1999 and 2003.
Piscitello agreed to pay the unpaid taxes. He forfeited 18 luxury watches, $100,000 in cash, two vacation homes and 19 acres of land in Chautauqua County. Sentencing is scheduled for Friday before U.S. District Judge John T. Elfvin.
To Robinson and John L. Calabro, another former business associate, Piscitello got off easy.
"It's an injustice when a man can steal millions of dollars and then get off by telling people he made a mistake on his income taxes," Robinson said.
According to lawsuits filed by Robinson and the two men who bought the company last year -- Bruce S. Guard and James J. Timlin -- Piscitello routinely transferred funds from a company payroll account to his own bank account in Virginia.
The state court lawsuits allege that Piscitello stole more than $4 million, often taking $15,000 to $18,000 in a single week. Guard and Timlin said they fired Piscitello last May, after finding that far too much money was flowing out of the payroll account.
"In March of 2004, Bob took $102,000 from us," said Timlin, referring to court papers. "Even after he was fired, he managed to access our computer system from an off-site computer and divert another $31,000 to his account."
Robinson said Piscitello would urge him to address cash-flow shortages by laying off employees, or cutting back on employee benefits. Many of the workers already received low wages -- roughly $7 to $9 an hour -- for making a variety of chemical products that range from car waxes to toothpaste.
"There are two very strongly divided sides to this story," Piscitello said, referring a reporter to his attorney. Wendy Piscitello said "gross inaccuracies" have been circulated about her husband, but she declined to be interviewed. Piscitello's attorney, Alan R. Feuerstein, said the theft charges will be contested in the state courts. He had no further comment. In his plea agreement, Piscitello confirmed that he accessed Innovative's computers "from time to time" and "caused electronic fund transfers" to his own account. But he did not admit to stealing money.
Why was Piscitello allowed to plead guilty to a tax crime?
"That was the charge that was most readily provable, and for which he had no defense at all," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul J. Campana, a supervisor of white-collar prosecutions. "It's a felony plea that prescribes substantial prison time and restitution for a first-time offender. There is also a substantial amount of property being forfeited."