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Highway worker hopes plea preserves job

LOCKPORT -- A suspended employee of the Cambria Highway Department Thursday pleaded guilty to a reduced charge that was arranged at his request to maximize his chances of keeping his job.

Thomas J. Schuler, 45, of Lower Mountain Road, appeared before Niagara County Judge Sara Sheldon Sperrazza to plead guilty to attempted tampering with physical evidence. He had been indicted on two grand larceny charges accusing him of stealing culvert pipe and topsoil from the town garage to fill in a ditch in front of his home.

"I don't think he has a shot at keeping his job. He thought he gained some slight technical advantage by that plea," said District Attorney Matthew J. Murphy III. He said Schuler did not want to admit to a theft.

Highway Superintendent Jon T. MacSwan said a termination hearing required under civil service rules was suspended to await the outcome of the court case. He said it's up to the Town Board to decide whether to fire Schuler, but he would check with state civil service officials "to find out our rights."

"I have no comment on what might happen," Cambria Supervisor Wright H. Ellis said. "We'll certainly take a hard look at it."

Schuler admitted to preparing a false check for $1,489 to show to investigators Jan. 29, 2004, in an effort to convince them he paid for eight 20-foot lengths of culvert pipe taken from the Highway Department about Nov. 20, 2003. He also took 10 to 13 truckloads of topsoil from the town over the following two weeks.

MacSwan said the value of the stolen property was about $4,000, but Schuler replaced the pipe, leaving a $2,100 tab that Sperrazza ordered him to pay to the town on or before his sentencing date, May 11.

Schuler could receive up to a year in jail, but Sperrazza told him, "This is probably not a case that will involve incarceration, but it may be a case that involves the Niagara County work program."

Schuler's uncle, former Highway Superintendent Willard F. Antoncich, 68, of Cambria-Wilson Road, is under indictment on two counts of first-degree perjury. He is accused of lying to a grand jury by testifying that Schuler gave him the $1,483 in cash in November 2003 and he held it for two months before returning it to Schuler and asking him to write a check. He also denied shredding documents relating to the matter; prosecutors say there was shredding.

Antoncich resigned his office in August 2004 when he was charged with petit larceny for having the town pay in late 2003 for $500 worth of repairs to a portable generator he owned and for adding toy John Deere farm equipment for himself to town equipment orders.

He pleaded guilty to reduced charges in Newfane Town Court, where the case was transferred, and was sentenced Nov. 15 to $1,000 restitution and 250 hours in the county work program as part of a conditional discharge.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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