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Charity program halted after alleged mishandling Former supervisor accuses successor

The town supervisor has suspended a program that dispenses $50,000 a year to charity after a former supervisor questioned how the money is being spent.

Former Supervisor James A. Sacco has accused current Supervisor Steven C. Richards of mishandling the paperwork related to the charitable donations, which are funneled through the town to various nonprofit groups.

The money comes as part of an agreement in a property tax dispute between the former Prime Outlets of Niagara -- now Factory Outlets of Niagara -- and is disbursed to charity through a town committee.

Sacco claims there has been an inadequate paper trail in regard to the disbursements and told The Buffalo News he forwarded the matter to the Niagara County district attorney's office.

"My only interest is that this money be spent in accordance with state law and these funds are used to support charitable and community organizations serving the residents of the town of Niagara, as was agreed to," Sacco, a Democrat, told The News in one of several e-mails.

"This has been going on since 1999, and no one took the initiative to find out if this is an abuse of taxpayers' dollars or not. I personally am committed to make sure it is fair, it is right, and it is kept honest," Sacco said.

Richards, vacationing in Florida, said by e-mail that Sacco's questions have forced him to cancel handing out the money for this year.

The supervisor said he was upset by any implication that the money might have been stolen or misappropriated.

Richards, a Republican, defeated Sacco in the 1995 town supervisor's race and has held the office since 1996. Sacco had previously served as supervisor for 16 years.

District Attorney Matthew J. Murphy III said Wednesday that Sacco raised questions about the charity spending during the election season last fall and that his office looked into the matter. He said he found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

"It's an intergovernmental agreement that they have with the owners" of the mall, Murphy said. "Whether it's subject to some audit or something, I don't know."

Richards said the former owners of the mall agreed with the town in 1999 to donate $50,000 a year for 10 years to local charities to settle a court case involving property taxes.

At the time, the Town Board and the former owners decided to settle the case out of court and to donate to charity the money they had been spending on attorneys.

James A. Schlesinger, president and chief executive officer of the new company that took ownership of the mall in 2004, agreed to continue the payments.

Sacco said he will continue to push the matter.

"I plan to send the district attorney's packet to the state comptroller's office," he said.

He said a certified municipal accountant is needed to follow through with the auditing.

Town police in late December charged Sacco with stealing one of Richards' political signs from property owned by National Grid on Military Road. He has denied those charges.

Councilman Lavern E. Haseley said Wednesday that he stands by Richards.

"With auditors, the state and everybody auditing our books, I don't know how anybody could get away with anything," he said.

Haseley also said he can understand the supervisor's decision to freeze the charity account after Sacco maintained the fund had been mishandled.


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