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A Williamsville man who posed as an expert on debt consolidation pleaded guilty Monday to a felony scheme-to-defraud charge for bilking two Erie County couples of more than $26,000 they paid him to reduce their spiraling debt.

Stephen Barone, 42, of Evans Street, admitted to Erie County Judge Michael Pietruszka that he never did any debt consolidation for the couples who lived in Cheektowaga and the City of Tonawanda.

Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark and John C. Doscher, Clark's top financial crimes prosecutor, said Barone is a former employee of Andrew F. Capoccia, the Albany personal bankruptcy lawyer disbarred last year. Barone pleaded guilty before an Erie County grand jury probe began into his crimes.

Clark and Doscher said a criminal probe into his operation was launched late last year after both the Cheektowaga and City of Tonawanda couples contacted the district attorney's office to complain about Barone.

Barone took $19,105 from one couple and $7,020 from the other and never did anything for them, the prosecutors said.

The judge continued bail but refused a sentence commitment. Barone is to be sentenced Oct. 29 and could get up to four years in prison. Clark said Doscher will seek full restitution for the couples.

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