Lancaster Highway Superintendent Richard L. Reese Jr. hopes town voters will give him a victory today, despite his plans to take a felony guilty plea at federal court later in the week.
His opponent, Daniel J. Amatura, charges that Reese was trying to sneak a fast one by voters by scheduling his court appearance for three days after the Democratic Party primary.
Reese's agreement to take a plea deal is the latest twist in a scenario that began April 1, when agents went to his home to question him about allegations that town equipment was being used improperly.
His attorney said Reese will plead guilty to a felony charge of making a false statement to the FBI about a piece of drain pipe that was installed on Reese's property at taxpayer expense.
"I want to put this matter behind me. I look forward to being elected and continuing as highway superintendent after Jan. 1," Reese said in a statement late Monday. "I've had the privilege of serving as highway superintendent for the past 12 years. I've tried to help as many people as I could."
Amatura replied, "I've kept away from this FBI issue in my campaign, but I think it was a political ploy for [Reese] to schedule his guilty plea for Friday. He says in his campaign literature that he serves with integrity . . . What kind of integrity is this? The voters should be aware of this."
And another strange twist about the case is this: Because he is admitting to a felony crime, Reese will have to resign from his post for the rest of this year. But he can run for election to that same post.
His attorney, Joel L. Daniels, said he hopes the plea deal will not stop voters from returning Reese to his nearly $72,000-a-year job.
"Under state public officers law, he has to leave the job for the rest of his term because of the felony, but he can run for a new term," Daniels said. "He's a hardworking, 24-7 guy who has done a great job for the past 12 years, and we hope the voters will elect him."
Dennis E. Ward, Erie County's Democratic elections commissioner, said he believes Daniels' legal interpretation is correct.
"It is an interesting situation," Ward said. "The felony conviction will prevent him from serving out the rest of his term in office. But he can run for a new term.
"My understanding is that as long as you go before the voters and place your conviction before them, if they want to elect a felon, they can elect a felon."
Town Attorney John M. Dudziak said he is checking to see if Daniels' interpretation of state law is accurate.
Reese has been on a paid leave of absence from his job since April 1, when he got into a confrontation with FBI agents who went to his home to ask him about allegations that town equipment was being misused.
After denying any wrongdoing, Reese became upset, threatened to kill himself and tried to leave the room where agents had been talking to him, the FBI said. Reese then struggled with agents, who said they tried to keep him from leaving the room because they were concerned about what he might do.
Since the arrest, the FBI probe has continued, and Reese, 57, has continued efforts to win re-election.
Monday, The Buffalo News learned that Reese is scheduled to plead guilty Friday before U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara.
He will admit to making a false statement to a federal agent, Daniels confirmed.
Reese will admit that he gave the agent a false answer when they asked where he purchased a piece of drain tile, 20 feet long, that was installed on his property, the attorney said. The drain tile was purchased with town funds.
"The drainage work also affects some town property, and our position has been that the Highway Department would have done this same work for any citizen," Daniels said. "The drainage work protects an embankment that is on town property."
Reese regrets the incident but maintains that he has done nothing in his 12 years of office that would hurt the town, Daniels said.
As for the confrontation with FBI agents, Daniels said that Reese overreacted, in large part because he was distraught over the recent death of his wife. Donna Reese died in January after a two-month illness.
"He's a nice guy who panicked with the FBI because of all he had been through with his wife," Daniels said. "He is not pleading guilty to a theft. He is pleading guilty to making a false statement to a federal agent."
According to Daniels, a charge that Reese assaulted an FBI agent will be dismissed. The case prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul J. Campana, declined to confirm or deny anything about the plea deal.
Amatura said that he was not aware of Reese's plea deal until The News contacted him Monday and that he was upset by the timing.
"I think [Reese] was hoping the voters wouldn't hear about this until after the primary," Amatura said. "He lied to the FBI, and now, it's like he's lying to the voters."
That is not true, Daniels said.
"The court appearance is on Judge Arcara's docket for all to see. When The News called me about this, I didn't hide anything," Daniels said. "Let the voters decide who is the best person to be their highway superintendent for the next four years."