It was April of 2016, and the jig was about to be up for longtime University at Buffalo administrator Dennis R. Black.
UB President Satish K. Tripathi needed to meet with Black, but the vice president for university life and services was traveling again somewhere and unavailable. Tripathi wanted to know why Black was out of town so often, especially since he wasn't submitting any travel requests or reimbursement vouchers to the president, as per university policy.
To find answers, Tripathi asked the university's audit department to delve into the financial records of the Faculty-Student Association, a university-affiliated non-profit entity that operates book stores, dining halls and other eateries on campus and fell under Black's purview. The audit took nearly two months to complete -- and revealed hundreds of thousands of dollars of FSA money had been spent on unauthorized travel and entertainment.
Tripathi asked Black to resign on July 7, 2016, and two weeks later, the university sent the audit with a memo to the state Inspector General's Office alerting them of possible criminal activity.
The other shoe finally dropped on Thursday, when Black, 61, pleaded guilty in State Supreme Court to spending $320,000 in university funds on luxuries that included Saturn Club membership dues, tickets to Broadway shows and Yankees' games and travel for him and his wife to his son's wedding in Salt Lake City. Black also admitted making charitable contributions in his name with UB funds, and then writing off the donations on his state tax return, a separate felony crime.
It was an astounding fall from grace for Black, who had spent his entire career at UB and was a highly visible community leader who served on the boards of the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and other organizations. Black stood in court between his lawyers, Brian C. Mahoney and Brendan P. Kelleher, and clasped his hands together as Justice John L. Michalski asked if he agreed to plead guilty to second-degree grand larceny and first-degree offering a false instrument for filing. He wore a striped tie and blue suit and nodded forward while answering the judge's questions.
Afterward, District Attorney John J. Flynn described Black's crimes as a betrayal to students, community members and state taxpayers.
"Mr. Black was one of the highest paid employees in Western New York, making almost $300,000, and yet, on top of that, he then took $300,000 from the university, money out of every parent's pocket who sends their kid to UB, money out of every taxpayer's pocket here in Western New York and across the state," Flynn said.
Another UB administrator, Andrea Costantino, who was director of campus living until her resignation Aug. 18, also pleaded guilty Thursday to stealing $14,664 in university funds. Investigators uncovered Costantino's thefts during the course of their more than year-long investigation into Black. Costantino, 48, of Depew, was charged with fourth-degree grand larceny for using a university credit card to buy a $4,200 treadmill for her home, to charge a personal trip to Florida and to make a charitable donation of $8,000 to a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Boston Marathon to make sure she would be entered into the race.
Costantino will be sentenced Dec. 6. Her lawyer told Michalski that she brought a check to court to pay back the university.
Black's thefts date back to at least 2007. In his role as vice president, Black was in charge of some of UB's most lucrative operations, and he wielded plenty of power within the Faculty-Student Association, where he was responsible for appointing several board members. The nonprofit FSA, it turns out, was very profitable. Most of those profits were channeled into a general fund to assist with university operating costs. But some portion of them ended up in a separate "agency" account to which only Black had access, and Black was able to use those funds at his leisure without requesting any approvals.
Mahoney, Black's attorney, gave a brief statement to the press following the arraignment, characterizing his client's crimes as "errors in judgment."
"He is committed to making full restitution for any expenses that were not clearly within the scope of his employment or in the furtherance of university goals," Mahoney said. "Mr. Black remains hopeful that his 42 years of community service on behalf of the university will not be overshadowed by this error in judgment."
Flynn said he's not sure how or why the thefts went unnoticed for so long.
"Someone was asleep at the switch, no doubt about it," he said.
Earlier this year, the DA's Office prosecuted a retired UB maintenance supervisor who received a$100,000 kickback in exchange for rigging bids on $1 million in dormitory painting contracts.
The former supervisor, Dean Yerry, who worked under Black, also was investigated by the state Inspector General's Office. He was sentenced in March to six months in prison and a $40,000 fine.
The Inspector General's Office was continuing to investigate whether there was any other malfeasance within the nonprofit entities affiliated with UB.
When asked whether there was any link among the three prosecutions, Flynn responded: "The connection in my opinion ... is what can be done to prevent this further? What mechanisms need to be put in place at UB to ensure that this doesn't happen again? That's the key question right now," he said. "And that's not a job for me. That's out of my lane. That's the question that the Council at UB, in my opinion, needs to address."
In an emailed statement to the UB community, Tripathi said the university cooperated fully with the investigation and took swift and appropriate measures to tighten financial controls as soon as officials uncovered the financial abuse.
Over the past year, the university also:
• Launched a third-party, confidential hotline and website that faculty, staff and students can use to raise questions or concerns about potential violations of university policies or suspected fraudulent or unethical behavior;
• Created a new policy for handling cash and checks;
• Revised its external audit activities and procedures; and,
• Created a new internal controls policy.
Public colleges and universities around the country often employ so-called auxiliary services corporations, like the UB Faculty-Student Association, to help generate revenue and run programs unencumbered by restrictions that accompany the use of state funds. At UB, the association is a $40 million annual operation, with more than 700 employees, net revenues of $3.5 million and a board of directors that includes students, staff and faculty.
Timothy W. Hoover, a partner with the Hodgson Russ law firm, which represents the UB Faculty-Student Association, said in a statement that the association also implemented new financial accountability measures, including adding new outside, independent directors to its governing board and a new audit committee of the board. The association also hired a new outside auditor to review its internal controls and to conduct a top-to-bottom analysis of the FSA financials.
A graduate of St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute, Black earned a bachelor's degree and a law degree from UB and began his career at the university in 1978. He was dean of students from 1988 to 1997 and became associate vice president for student affairs in 1991. He was appointed a vice president in 1998, under then UB President William R. Greiner. He also taught as an adjunct assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education.
For years, Black was the university's most recognizable face, both on campus, where he had frequent interactions with students, and off campus, where he was a mainstay of the boards of some of the community's most prominent institutions. In 2012 and 2013, for example, he served as chairman of the United Way's annual campaign.
"Our experience with Dennis was that he has always been a strong leader and was very passionate about the community," said Michael Weiner, United Way president.
In his role at United Way, Black did not have any responsibility over financial transactions, said Weiner, but he did serve effectively as a high-profile ambassador for the organization.
"We're all shocked over this," Weiner said.
The United Way was among several area charitable organizations that received subpoenas from investigators for information about Black.
"They wanted everything and anything that had Dennis' name on it," Weiner said.
Black used nearly $13,500 in stolen university funds in 2013 for United Way event tickets and campaign support, according to the District Attorney's Office. He also spent at least $75,000 between 2008 and 2016 on pledges, tickets, dinners and video and recording services in support of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, where he was in line to become chairman of the board in 2016 before abruptly leaving the board altogether. Officials with the BPO did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
Black also made donations with UB money to Christ the King Seminary in Aurora and to the American Heart Association.
Students, faculty, staff and community members all were puzzled last summer when Black suddenly resigned, with little explanation from the university, and moved with his wife, Leilani, to Mount Pleasant, S.C., where they had a second home.
Black asserted in an interview with The Buffalo News last year about his departure that the university's audit had revealed only "process and reimbursement" issues related to expenses over a three-year period amounting to around $15,000 that he had paid back.
"We're talking hundreds and thousands here, not hundreds of thousands of dollars. There was an audit. Reimbursement was made," he said at the time. "If there were errors made, they were correctable errors."
Black is scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 10, 2018, and could receive five to 15 years in prison on the grand larceny charge alone. Flynn said he will ask the judge for jail time.