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An area day care center operator pleaded guilty in Niagara County Court Wednesday to bilking the county of nearly $28,000.

James D. Kish, 59, of Witmer Road, Wheatfield, who runs Wheatfield Day Care Center on Sawyer Road, pleaded guilty to reduced charges of petit larceny and two counts of second-degree offering a false instrument for filing, all misdemeanors, before Judge Sara Sperrazza as part of a plea deal.

He was arrested Wednesday on three felony counts: third-degree grand larceny and two counts of first-degree offering a false instrument for filing.

Kish was accused of overcharging the Niagara County Department of Social Services $27,953 for day care services that were never performed from July 1, 1998, through last June 30, Assistant District Attorney Jeanne Juliao said.

She said the overbilling followed a pattern.

"If a child was there a half day, he'd bill the county for a whole day. Things like that," she said.

Under the plea agreement, Kish is required to make full restitution to the county immediately, withdraw all ownership rights to the Wheatfield Day Care Center, have no contact with the center, never be involved in any form of day care business again and waive his rights to appeal.

Kish paid full restitution on Wednesday, county Welfare Fraud Unit Chief Sheila Lawrence said.

Sperrazza, warning that the guilty pleas could result in as much as a year in prison, released Kish on his own recognizance and set sentencing for March 28.

The arrest ended a seven-month investigation into the day care center's billing practices by Lawrence, Joanne Austin of the Social Services Department Day Care Unit and Assistant District Attorney Marie Grisanti.

Lawrence said Austin triggered the probe last July when she was reviewing one of the day care bills in the presence of a Social Services client who said she had not used the day care services for which the county was billed.

"We checked with numerous clients -- mothers whose kids were using the day care center -- and found that the times the county was being billed for and the times the kids were at the center did not match" in many instances, Lawrence said.

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