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Thomas A. Moriarity, a Buffalo News truck driver, pleaded guilty in State Supreme Court Thursday to petit larceny, linked to the theft of up to $30,000 from newspaper honor boxes in the mid-1990s.

Moriarity, 57, of Depew, entered a so-called Alford Plea, in which he conceded he feared he would be convicted on severe felony counts and face an extended term of imprisonment, but maintaining his claim that he never criminally wronged The News.

Prosecutors told State Supreme Court Justice Russell P. Buscaglia that The News is not seeking restitution.

Buscaglia accepted the misdemeanor plea after telling Moriarity he is convinced there is sufficient evidence to convict the defendant of a more serious charge at trial.

The judge said he would formally sentence Moriarity on April 4 to three years probation, meaning the defendant could be jailed if he got into any legal trouble during that period.

Before allowing Moriarity to leave court on his own recognizance pending formal sentencing, the judge noted he had to declare a mistrial on May 14, 1998, after a jury that deliberated two days was unable to reach a verdict on felony charges in his case.

The judge stressed that Moriarity's guilty plea was the result of "lengthy discussions" among the judge, prosecutors and Moriarity's chief criminal attorney, Stephen M. Hughes.

Before the judge accepted Moriarity's guilty plea, which had carried a possible one-year jail term and $1,000 fine, prosecutor John C. Doscher told the judge the criminal investigation confirmed that Moriarity had stolen "marked coins" left in the newspaper boxes by The News' investigators.

Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark said Moriarity's conviction "should send the message that we're not going to tolerate theft of any kind, in particular by an employee from his employer."

In return for Moriarity's guilty plea, prosecutors dropped all felony charges lodged against him by an Erie County grand jury three years ago, including felony counts linked to falsifying New York State income tax returns in 1995 and 1996 to cover up the thefts.

When asked to comment on the plea proceeding, Moriarity declined.

Terrence M. Connors, a senior corporate attorney for The Buffalo News, said that by his guilty plea Moriarity "waived his right to a second trial and opted not to contest charges that he stole coins from downtown newspaper boxes during a 29-month period."

By his plea Moriarity also "ac-knowledged that a trial could result in conviction of a more serious offense," Connors said.

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