A state team of investigators who have been following, wiretapping and trying to prosecute organized-crime figures in Western New York for 13 years is leaving Buffalo.
Leaders of the Organized Crime Task Force informed its investigators and other employees this week that the agency will close its Ellicott Square office later this year.
The six investigators, one prosecuting attorney and several clerical workers who now staff the Buffalo office will be offered transfers to Albany. From there, the task force will run its investigations into Western New York organized- crime activity, said Ronald Goldstock, director of the task force.
The main reason for the move is the state's desire to cut the expenses of the task force, Goldstock and his first assistant director, Richard Laskey, said Wednesday.
"We're not in any way cutting back on our commitment to investigations in this part of the state," Laskey said. "We're just consolidating offices. . . . It's strictly budgetary."
At present, the task force runs three offices: a downstate office in White Plains, an upstate office in Albany and a Western New York office in Buffalo. Under the consolidation plan, investigations in Buffalo will be run out of Albany.
How will investigators located in Albany keep tabs on mob activity in Buffalo, Rochester and Niagara Falls?
They'll do a lot of traveling, Laskey said.
"They travel a lot now," Laskey said. "As it is now, with three offices, we have agents in Buffalo handling cases in places like Watertown, halfway across the state."
He noted the task force has access to State Police facilities and also works closely with local police agencies throughout the state.
Goldstock acknowledged that, from a law enforcement standpoint, it would be better for the Buffalo office to remain open, but he said the state's financial problems dictate closing the office. He did not provide specific figures but indicated that, over the past five years, the agency's budget has been cut from approximately $8 million to $5 million.
"We have about 115 employees statewide. About five years ago, we had 160," Goldstock said.
Over an 18-month period beginning in April 1992, the state paid at least $184 million to companies that were publicly identified as being linked to organized crime, the Albany Times Union reported last November. The $184 million amounts to nearly 20 times the budget of the Organized Crime Task Force over that time period.
Is the state committing enough funds to fighting organized crime?
"Could we use more money? Of course," he said. "But if I was a legislator, would I approve more money for the task force? That's a harder question. . . . It's hard to compare the organized-crime problems with the needs of funding for education, protection of the environment and other important issues."
Goldstock said the decision to close the office is no reflection on the performance of the Buffalo office, which opened in 1981.
In recent years, the agency has had an up-and-down history in the Buffalo area.
In January, six Niagara Falls natives pleaded guilty to bookmaking charges in Las Vegas. Buffalo task force agents worked with Las Vegas prosecutors to break up what was described as a $50,000-a-day ring, big even by Las Vegas standards.
Last December, longtime Niagara Falls gambling kingpin Benjamin "Sonny" Nicoletti was sentenced to a year in prison for running a gambling ring, following a lengthy investigation conducted by the task force and FBI agents.
In November 1992, the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court reversed a cocaine-dealing conviction obtained by the task force against Patrick Granger, a former Buffalo attorney. The task force accused Granger, who since has been reinstated as a practicing lawyer, of taking part in a major drug distribution ring.
In May 1992, a $39 million civil-racketeering suit, accusing waste contractor James "Harry" Williams of inflating Love Canal cleanup costs and bribing former Niagara Falls City Manager Donald O'Hara, was settled in federal court for less than $200,000. The lawsuit was developed on the basis of a task force investigation. Mader Capital Corp. paid the settlement. The suit had been announced with fanfare in 1983 by State Attorney General Robert Abrams.