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Assessor resigns as probe continues West Seneca board reviewing records

Under investigation by the FBI on allegations of low property valuations and tax breaks for developers, Edward J. Hummel resigned Friday afternoon as West Seneca assessor.

After a special Town Board meeting, Hummel's duties were turned over to Robert Hutchison, Town of Hamburg assessor.

The town said state and county officials have begun a "top to bottom review" of Hummel's handling of assessments on 17,000 residential and commercial properties in the town.

Hummel, who became West Seneca assessor in 1970 when he was 22, was unavailable to comment. He has been on sick leave for more than two months.

But he has hired John J. Molloy, a top local defense lawyer, to represent him in the FBI investigation.

Molloy, who has represented one of the "Lackawanna Six" and many other defendants in federal court, was out of town and could not be reached on Friday.

"Is this going to become a criminal matter? I don't know," said Timothy J. Greenan, town attorney. "The town is taking a proactive approach in consulting with state and county officials. We're looking at a complete modernization of the assessor's office."

For months, FBI agents have been investigating Hummel's relationship with developers who have received big tax breaks, The Buffalo News reported Tuesday.

Agents were looking into allegations that Hummel has granted low assessments or improper tax exemptions on millions of dollars in commercial properties, authorities said.

"If a company gets a big tax break on a property it owns, other taxpayers have to make up the difference," one law enforcement official said.

West Seneca Supervisor Paul T. Clark said the town hired Buffalo attorney Gerald J. Whalen several months ago to look into Hummel's activities and provide information to the FBI.

"[Hummel has] been the sole assessor in the town. He has a lot of discretion regarding exemptions and valuations," Whalen said. "Obviously, it's necessary that he be acting in good faith when he makes those decisions. I'm engaged in a fact-finding mission to determine if that's been done."

If Hummel had not resigned, a hearing would have been held on whether to terminate his employment, Greenan said.

Authorities said the FBI is examining tax breaks awarded over the years not only to developers but some individual homeowners.

While considered an independent official, Hummel had held the position through appointment to six-year terms by the Town Board, most recently in 2001.

In January, board members gave Hummel a 3.4 percent raise, bringing his annual salary to more than $72,000.

Two law enforcement officials describe Hummel as a low-key individual long active in West Seneca politics, buying and selling fund-raising tickets for town officeholders.

But Ralph C. Lorigo, a powerful West Seneca politician and attorney who has been acquainted with Hummel since the 1960s, said earlier this week that he has never known him to help any political candidate raise money.

Lorigo, chairman of the Erie County Conservative Party, said he always considered Hummel to be honest and was surprised to hear he is the subject of an investigation.

Lorigo said he has had numerous dealings with Hummel over the years, involving the assessments of both residential and commercial properties.

"I've always thought of him as a decent guy," Lorigo said. "He's never asked me for anything on the side, anything that anyone could infer was illegal."

While Hutchison temporarily operates the West Seneca assessor's office, West Seneca will compensate Hamburg for his time, under an "intermunicipal agreement," town officials said.

"The town, in consultation with the New York State Office of Real Property Services and the Erie County director of real Property, determined that it was important to appoint an independent highly competent professional from outside the town to review the assessment roll and to suggest any necessary changes in the assessor's office," Clark said.

In a statement, the state office of real property service said:

"We are prepared to assist the Town of West Seneca in both the short term and the long term in improving its assessment administration. This assistance can include conducting an evaluation of the needs of the assessor's office and identifying where improvements could be made to help ensure equitable treatment for the taxpayers of West Seneca."

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com

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