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Worker gets probation in theft of plows

Niagara County Judge Sara Sheldon Sperrazza said she wanted to make sure former county highway worker Joel D. Allen can't get his job back, so she placed him on probation Friday for stealing two snowplow blades and a pile of steel bridge railings from the county garage.

Assistant District Attorney Robert F. LaDuca Jr. asked for the maximum sentence of a year in jail for Allen, who was convicted of three misdemeanors in a nonjury trial that ended Nov. 3.

But Sperrazza said if she simply sent Allen to jail, she wouldn't have any control over what he did when he got out.

Sperrazza, therefore, ordered Allen to serve four months of weekends in the County Jail, starting next weekend, and put him on probation for three years.

"The terms and conditions will include you don't go back there to work. They don't want you," Sperrazza told Allen, 36, of Johnson Creek Road, Hartland.

County Human Resources Director Peter P. Lopes said Allen had been terminated, but there was a possibility that Allen's union, Local 182 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, could pursue a grievance to try to get his job back.

"We're extremely pleased with the judge's decision. We think justice was done," Lopes said. "This individual violated not only the policies of Niagara County, the laws, but he violated the public's trust."

AFSCME President William Rutland said he hasn't spoken to Allen about the grievance, which was filed right after the firing, asserting the punishment was excessive. It's been held in abeyance awaiting the outcome of the criminal case.

Rutland said if Allen couldn't pursue the grievance because of Sperrazza's probation rules, that would seem to settle the matter for three years, but the union leader said he wasn't sure what could happen after that.

Allen also must pay the county $2,000 in restitution for the plow blades and the railings, which were sold for scrap.

Allen told Sheriff's Investigator Raymond Degan he needed money because he was going through a divorce, and also committed the theft because, as LaDuca quoted him, "I had a beef with my boss."

That boss, Michael F. Tracy, deputy public works commissioner for highways, was in the courtroom but declined to comment on the sentence.

Also on hand was Allen's father, S. Carl Allen, who was Tracy's predecessor as county highway chief, and other family members.

"In private they're all extremely embarrassed by his activities," said defense attorney George V.C. Muscato. "Joel should not have done this. He lost a great job. He lost his health insurance. He has suffered far more than most people who steal from their employers."

Allen was indicted on charges of third-degree burglary, unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, petit larceny and third-degree criminal trespass.

He was convicted of the latter three counts, all misdemeanors, but the felony burglary charge was dismissed during the trial because a surveillance video didn't actually show Allen entering a building the day of the theft, Dec. 5, 2009.

Allen, a truck driver with the county for about five years, including an interruption, was earning about $31,000 a year when he was fired six days after the theft.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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