The defense attorney for Richard M. Sampson said Getzville firefighters should share the blame for the former treasurer's embezzling $227,666 from the volunteer fire department because they pressured him to remain as treasurer of the company even though he had tried to resign four years earlier.
But the president of the Getzville Volunteer Fire Company denied that charge Tuesday after a judge sentenced Sampson, an alcoholic gambler, to six months in jail and five years of virtual house arrest.
Walter Cary, president of the fire company, said Sampson never told him he wanted to resign as treasurer.
"If he didn't want to be treasurer anymore, he didn't have to run every year," Cary said. "I made it a policy that all officers (who wish to continue) run for re-election once a year. He never said anything to me."
Sampson, 54, of Amherst, who said he squandered the money in Off-Track Betting parlors from October 1984 through last August, pleaded guilty to grand larceny. In addition to the jail and house arrest, Sampson also was ordered to make the fire company the beneficiary of his $35,000 life insurance policy.
During sentencing, defense attorney Robert B. Druar said that Sampson was known to his fire company colleagues as an "unemployed alcoholic gambler" but that they repeatedly rejected his attempts to quit the treasurer's post.
Instead, Druar said, they urged Sampson to keep the unsalaried job because they knew he was out of work and "had the time" to devote to company finances.
"Mr. Sampson told me that at one point -- I believe in 1985 -- he had talked to other officials within the fire company and told them he was having problems and wondered if he should be the treasurer," Druar said.
"Sampson tells me he was told that he would be hard to replace. They just didn't know who within the fire company would be able to do the job."
"We're still wondering about something," Druar said. "How well-funded are these people if they don't miss a quarter of a million dollars?"
Cary declined to comment further. Other members of the company also declined to discuss the case.
The Getzville Fire Company is the largest of Amherst's 10 volunteer firefighting units. It covers 11 square miles in the center of town, including the North Campus of the University at Buffalo. The company's sprawling red-brick headquarters at 630 Dodge Road has a seven-bay firehouse, offices and banquet hall under one roof, plus a pavilion and other buildings scattered over a large parking lot.
Ninety volunteer firefighters operate and maintain three pumpers, a ladder truck, two ambulances and a rescue truck on property on Dodge Road and at its other station at 1871 N. Forest Road.
Amherst Supervisor Jack Sharpe said the case doesn't jeopardize the fire company's firefighting capabilities.
"At no time was the competency or reliability of the fire company's services to the town compromised," Sharpe said.
The company's insurance claim for the $227,666 is pending.
Druar said Sampson has 30 days to decide whether to appeal the sentence or any provision of it.
"The sentence might be a disappointment to those volunteer firemen who are looking for Mr. Sampson to spend seven years (the maximum sentence) in prison," Druar said. "However, it was a harsh sentence. A 54-year-old man is going to serve a six-month sentence in the county jail. The man has never been in jail before, he's never been (previously) convicted of a crime. It's a hard sentence. It's going to be a hard thing for him."
However, he acknowledged, Sampson could be freed for good behavior after serving two months.
Jail and house arrest weren't the only portions of the sentence.
"You are not to go near an OTB parlor," State Supreme Court Justice Mario J. Rossetti said during sentencing. The judge called him "a victim of both" alcoholism and gambling.
Sampson, who was sent to the Erie County Holding Center, also was ordered to submit to the county Probation Department's experimental electronic "handcuff" program for six months after he leaves jail and to make financial restitution. The electronic "handcuff" is a device that can be locked onto a probationer to allow law-enforcement authorities to monitor his movements.
During the remainder of his five-year probation, Sampson is to perform 500 hours of community service per year and leave his Amherst home only for work, religious services or counseling for alcoholism and gambling.
Timothy Franczyk, head of special investigations in the district attorney's office, called it a fair sentence.
"I think the judge tried to arrive at a fair and just sentence under the circumstances," he said. "He will be under probation supervision for the next five years. He's also going to be subject to the electronic handcuff program -- a little bit more restrictive than your basic probation."
By ordering 500 hours of community service a year, Franczyk said, the court came up with "a combination of the punitive and the productive aspects, making him pay back to society a little bit."
Full restitution by Sampson -- who hasn't held a steady job since 1984 -- "is pretty much a moot point," Franczyk added. "But at least he's forced to pay something back to the community."