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Niagara DA frets about loss of white-collar investigator

The reassignment of a criminal investigator assigned to his office has Niagara County District Attorney Matthew J. Murphy III worried that white-collar crime cases may languish in 2006.

Sheriff Thomas A. Beilein last week decided to reassign Investigator Edward Garde, who has been assigned to Murphy's office for a decade. Garde will now investigate welfare fraud. He will not be replaced, at least for the time being.

Beilein said this is one of several personnel moves he had to make because of retirements and budget changes made by the County Legislature.

"I'm concerned," Murphy said. He said the work of Garde and Investigator Alan Brooks, who is on Murphy's payroll, has been crucial to the prosecution of several white-collar cases in 2005 alone.

Among them are the cases of Judith A. Dale, former manager of Niagara Falls' Parkway Condominiums, who is accused of stealing money from the condo association to buy cocaine; Lockport lawyer David R. Wendt, who is accused of stealing money from his clients; former Cambria Highway Superintendent Willard F. Antoncich and his nephew Thomas J. Schuler, who are charged with thefts from the town Highway Department; and Dan D. Dietrich, who is accused of costing county taxpayers $400,000 by renewing Medicaid clients without reviewing their eligibility while working as a Social Services Department caseworker.

Garde and Brooks also have been working on allegations of nominating petition fraud in the 2005 primary elections in Wilson and Pendleton. Murphy said information in those matters is to be presented to a grand jury during the first quarter of 2006.

"Those are cases of a type. They're bound to come up again in the future," Murphy said.

Beilein said there have been four retirements in the Sheriff's Department, one more is expected and reassignments were needed to keep things running.

"We're down quite a few on road patrol, and we had to move some people around, at least until we have somebody graduate from the [Niagara County Law Enforcement] Academy. That will be at the end of June," Beilein said. "I know how Matt relies on Ed Garde."

Beilein held out the hope that an investigator could be detailed to Murphy's staff in the second half of the year.

In the meantime, some investigators are being reassigned to deputy positions, though their pay is not being reduced. Two welfare fraud investigators, Brian Schell and Sheila Haley Lawrence, will be moved to court security duty, while some other court deputies will be placed on road patrol.

"We're running a midnight shift that's as small as it's been since I've been here," Beilein said.

Capt. John Young, longtime chief of the court security detail, is among the retirees; Beilein said Sgt. Scott Lombardo is being promoted to captain and will take over Young's duties. Deputy Bruce Elliott is being promoted to road patrol captain.

The Sheriff's Department lost three sergeant positions in the 2006 budget, which calls for the hiring of more civilian radio dispatchers. That set off a chain reaction within the department, as deputies with more seniority moved down the line by use of "bumping rights" outlined in their union contract.

The 2006 county budget created five more jobs for court security deputies, fully funded by the state. Those jobs are open to personnel bumped from other posts.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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