Third former city employee arrested in parking meter scandal - The Buffalo News

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Third former city employee arrested in parking meter scandal

To hear the FBI talk, Franklin Lopez Jr. lived the good life.

He owned a jet ski, an SUV, two boats and a moped, and all of it on a part-time salary as a Buffalo parking meter coin collector.

Federal agents now believe Lopez financed his lavish lifestyle by stealing quarters – perhaps $89,000 worth of them – from city parking meters.

His arrest Friday makes him the third city worker to be charged – two others have admitted their guilt – in the FBI’s expanding investigation into parking meter thefts at City Hall.

And more arrests in the celebrated case – the Washington Post, USA Today and New York Times have all written about it – could be coming.

“If multiple people are involved, multiple people will be prosecuted," said Kevin Helfer, the city’s parking commissioner and the man police credit with uncovering the thefts.

Federal prosecutors declined to comment on how many others might be involved, but the criminal complaint against Lopez refers to two other unnamed city employees.

“Certainly, there is a possibility,” U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. said Friday when asked about more arrests.

Sources close to the probe said the other target is Mark S. Carlson, a parking meter collector who worked on the same truck as Lopez.

The FBI declined to comment on Carlson or anyone else, but made it clear Lopez’s arrest is part of a larger, two-year old investigation that remains open.

“Public corruption is obviously a priority of the FBI, and it’s an incremental process in eradicating it,” said Brian P. Boetig, the new Special Agent in Charge of the FBI office in Buffalo.

The FBI investigation into Lopez and Carlson began after Helfer allegedly found them with an unauthorized second vault in their city-owned vehicle in August of 2011.

Lopez, 33, who has been charged with theft of government funds, is accused of using that second vault to steal $1,300 in quarters that day, although prosecutors point to his lifestyle and statements from people he worked with to suggest he probably took much more over the long term.

The government, in its court papers, details a series of unexplained cash deposits and payments by Lopez during his eight years at City Hall to suggest he may be responsible for more than $89,000 in missing money.

“In his own statement, he admits to stealing more than $1,300," Assistant U.S. Attorney Maura O’Donnell said Friday.

Lopez’s lawyer declined to comment on the allegations against his client, except to say that it’s too early in the legal process to judge him guilty.

“We’ll see what the government is alleging and take it from there,” defense attorney Jorge S. de Rosas said after Lopez’s initial appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah J. McCarthy.

The news of Lopez’s arrest came just weeks after James Bagarozzo, a former parking meter mechanic, was sentenced to 2½ years in prison for his role in a separate scam.

By his own admission, Bagarozzo stole $210,000 over an eight-year period.

One of two parking meter mechanics arrested by the FBI in December of 2011, he was accused of breaking and rigging meters he was supposed to be fixing.

Both he and Lawrence Charles, a meter mechanic who admitted stealing $15,000 in quarters, pleaded guilty last year to felony charges of theft and conversion.

Charles will be sentenced at a later date.

The allegations against Lopez are different because of his job and how it gave him access to quarters in the meters.

His job, according to investigators, was to empty parking meter canisters filled with quarters into a portable vault he transported to and from City Hall.

The allegation is that he used a second unauthorized vault to steal from the meters.

“The tip-off,” Hochul said Friday, “was him being found in possession of $1,300 in quarters.”

Helfer, who reportedly confronted both Lopez and Carlson, declined to comment on his role in the investigation, except to emphasize that he had the full support of Mayor Byron W. Brown while the probe was under way.

Lopez, according to court papers, eventually admitted stealing the $1,300 found in the second vault, but denied Carlson had any part in the thefts.

“The money that was found contained in the wheeled collection vault is money that I put in the vault,” Lopez is alleged to have told a Buffalo police detective.

The FBI’s interest in other city parking employees surfaced after Helfer reported to the court that since the arrest of Bagarozzo and Charles, the city has seen a significant increase in revenue from its meters.

In fact, the increase in revenue – $600,000 – is more than double the amount Bagarozzo and Charles admitted stealing.

Not surprisingly, the court wanted to know why.

Was more money taken?

Were others involved in the stealing?

The FBI believes part of the answer is yes, others were involved and Frank Lopez was one of them.


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