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A Buffalo home-improvement contractor pleaded guilty Friday to a felony charge for embezzling $23,000 from customers since 1994.

Samuel Calabrese, 43, operator of Buffalo's First Choice Home Improvements concern, pleaded guilty to a felony charge of scheme to defraud. He already has repaid $8,650 of the money he took from clients for work he never performed and has agreed to pay off the rest or face jail, according to Attorney General Dennis C. Vacco.

Calabrese declined to comment after State Supreme Court Justice John F. O'Donnell took his guilty plea to a felony charge of scheme to defraud and let him remain free pending his Dec. 4 sentencing.

Kyle Calabrase, Calabrese's attorney and cousin, said the longtime contractor got into trouble with the law "as a result of bad business decisions and not because of his intent to harm anybody."

A criminal probe was launched more than six months ago after the state agency began getting complaints from homeowners about Calabrese's tactics, according to Mike Zabel and Dennis Rosen of the attorney general's office.

The probe found that, in 1994 and 1995, Calabrese took $5,000 in down payments from 15 homeowners, primarily in the Buffalo area, for work his company never performed, and, last year, took another $18,000 from 13 homeowners for unfinished work, they said.

Vacco said Calabrese was spared an indictment in the case because he agreed about to try to work out his business problems and because he made "a very substantial down payment" on the embezzled money before Friday's plea.

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