The Getzville Fire Co.'s former treasurer was sentenced today to six months in jail and 500 hours of community service for each of five years in the theft of $227,666 from the department.
State Supreme Court Justice Mario J. Rossetti also told Richard Sampson, 54, to make the volunteer department his life insurance beneficiary and imposed a host of other restrictions on him once he is released from custody.
Rossetti said he was shocked to learn that Sampson lost the fire company's money gambling at state-sponsored Off Track Betting parlors.
The judge also expressed doubt that Sampson, who hasn't worked steadily since 1984, will repay the stolen money. The judge nonetheless ordered full restitution and directed him immediately to make the fire company the beneficiary on his $35,000 life insurance policy.
That should ensure the company is made financially whole after insurance carriers pay claims for Sampson's four years of thefts to pay for his gambling losses, the judge said.
The judge also ordered the Erie County probation department to assign Sampson to 500 hours of community service work.
The fire company, the largest of Amherst's 10 volunteer companies, has administrative offices at 1871 North Forest Road and a banquet hall and office at 630 Dodge Road. Its district covers 11 square miles in the center of the sprawling township, including the University at Buffalo north campus.
Rossetti placed Sampson under virtual house arrest for up to five years after his release and ordered him to submit to the county probation department's experimental electronic "handcuff" program for six months after he leaves jail.
For the remainder of a probationary term of up to five years, Sampson is only to leave his Amherst home to work and attend religious services or professional alcoholism and gambling counseling, the judge said.
"You are not to go near an OTB parlor," the judge told him.
Rossetti called Sampson "a constant loser" at OTB parlors in the area and expressed amazement that Sampson was apparently able to avoid losing money to mob-related bookies. The judge called him "a victim of both" alcoholism and gambling.
Rossetti told the defendant he would have received the maximum possible seven-year term if prosecutors had proven he had been stealing throughout his term as company treasurer.
The judge said he was lenient because the thefts apparently began as Sampson sunk into alcoholism in the early 1980s.
Sampson, who has been virtually unemployed since he was laid off from a computer technician's post, vowed to "do everything in my power" to repay the stolen funds either to the fire company or insurance carriers.
Sampson was treasurer of the fire company since 1979 and a member for about 16 years. He pleaded guilty March 23 to a single count of third-degree grand larceny. That headed off a grand jury investigation.
He admitted taking money regularly out of fire company bank accounts from October 1984 through last August.
Prosecutor Richard D. Kaufman said the plea was offered in the midst of an investigation because of the criminal penalties Sampson faces and to save taxpayers money on what likely would otherwise have been an extended inquiry and trial.
Sampson was forced to sign a "confession of judgment" before sentencing that will allow authorities to seize any money he acquires in the future to pay his debt. He faces jail if he stops payments on his life insurance, Kaufman said.
The judge, who also lives in the Getzville fire district in Amherst, refused to criticize Sampson's fire company colleagues. Sampson's attorney, Robert Druar, complained that "self-righteous" firefighters kept Sampson in the treasurer's post despite the defendant's repeated attempts to quit.
However, the judge said everybody, including Sampson's wife, "gets blame" for his four years of looting the company's largely unaudited accounts.
Spokesmen for the fire company couldn't be reached for comment today. A man claiming to be a member of the fire company was present in court for the sentencing, but declined to disclose his name or to comment.
Druar criticized Sampson's former fire-fighting colleagues for sending "dozens of form letters" to the judge seeking the maximum possible seven-year prison term on the grand larceny count.
Court officials said Rossetti received over 50 letters urging severe punishment.
The defense attorney said Sampson was known to his fire company colleagues as an "unemployed alcoholic gambler," but they repeatedly rejected his attempts to quit the treasurer's post.
Sampson's colleagues at the fire company "urged" him to keep the job because they knew he was out of work and "had the time" to devote to company finances.
"This crime never should have happened," Druar said.
But just as Sampson "betrayed" his fire company colleagues, they have "betrayed" him through their "self-righteous" belated indignation, Druar told the judge.
Fire company officials are "in part responsible for this problem because they were careless with that money" because it was largely "taxpayer" money they got from the state and township and not their personal funds, Druar told the judge.
"They are embarrassed, and rightly so," Druar said of the fire company.