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Ex-Council member arrested in fraud case; FBI still probing police pay abuse

From his hardscrabble youth, Robert Quintana became a national spokesman for the United Way and then a Buffalo Council member hoping to be mayor someday. But he hit a new low in his years-long slide Wednesday as federal agents accused him of defrauding city taxpayers.

Quintana, who returned to his job as a Buffalo police officer when his political career stalled, was arraigned on charges of mail fraud and health care fraud.

The FBI alleges that Quintana worked for a private employer while collecting his "injured-on-duty" police salary of more than $60,000 a year for seven years.

The charges could net him 20 years in prison if convicted, though federal guidelines would likely allow a more lenient sentence.

Shackled but in street clothes, Quintana pleaded not guilty at his arraignment before U.S. Magistrate Judge Hugh B. Scott and was released on his own recognizance late Wednesday. He is now suspended from the police force without pay.

Quintana had been out on paid leave since March 2005 and asserted he was not fit for even light duty, according to city officials and U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. Yet FBI agents saw him cleaning tables, lifting boxes, chipping ice and otherwise managing a restaurant for pay.

Hochul would not identify the employer, but various government sources said Quintana was working at the Niagara Cafe on Niagara Street, a popular West Side spot dubbed the "Hispanic City Hall" when he was in office in the 1990s. Quintana apparently had served meals to some of the FBI investigators during their undercover visits.

Buffalo pays out millions of dollars a year in salaries to its injured police officers and firefighters. The Buffalo News in 2009 found that about 100 sidelined police officers -- 13 percent of the force -- were costing taxpayers about $10 million a year in pay and benefits.

Some city officials suspected that a few cops had become malingerers, especially considering that pay given to officers injured on duty is exempt from income taxes. As further proof, at least a couple of injured officers joined rallies to protest an expired union contract with City Hall but could not report to work.

The Police Benevolent Association explained that the number of on-duty injuries rose when Buffalo went with one-officer police cars in 2003. Because of increased distractions, such as computer terminals in squad cars, the number of injuries suffered in auto accidents spiked.

Quintana's case illustrates how the cost of injured police and firefighters can dent any municipal budget. Over the years, Quintana collected $561,000 in salary and fringe benefits while he tried to recover from back and neck injuries he said were job-related. Meanwhile, his absence from the active-duty roster meant that other officers, sometimes earning overtime, had to cover his post in the South District.

Quintana in 2005 reported that he fell down a flight of stairs, 15 steps in all, when the layout of the building indicated just six stairs at the front of the house, Hochul said. X-rays and an MRI found no noticeable injuries, Hochul continued.

Still, Quintana over the years told the city he was too injured to work and continued that stance after an independent medical exam requested by the city in January, the federal officials said.

The federal authorities charged him with health care fraud because, they say, he claimed serious injuries when he was able to work and allowed the city to cover his medical expenses. They charged him with mail fraud because he allowed City Hall to mail a check for a medical bill to his doctor.

In an effort to beat back the number of injured-on-duty personnel, Mayor Byron W. Brown last year asked his police and fire commissioners to take over management of the cases in their departments, on the theory that they know the staff culture better than aides in Human Resources. Brown also asked Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda to start examining the injured-on-duty cases and come up with ways to control them.

The investigation led to findings that Brown deemed, at least in Quintana's case, worthy of criminal, rather than departmental, charges -- to send the message that the city "will not tolerate any abuse of taxpayer dollars," the mayor said Wednesday. In the wake of Quintana's arrest, both the mayor and the FBI hinted that action against other personnel might follow.

"The decision was made to turn some of these cases over to the FBI, and today there was an initial arrest made by the Buffalo Internal Affairs Division and the FBI," Brown said in an interview with The Buffalo News.

Steven L. Lanser, the acting special agent in charge of the local FBI office, confirmed that agents are examining other injured-on-duty cases for potential fraud. "We're going to take this as far as we can to make sure we take care of the problem," he said.

The mayor said City Hall now juggles fewer injured-on-duty cases. The number of police cases has fallen from 123 last July to 65 as of Wednesday. Similarly, the number of Fire Department cases fell from 101 to 68 over the same period, according to city figures.

Buffalo police reached out to the FBI for a few reasons: The federal agents have more resources, including more surveillance tools; the investigation, under way for about a year, required more personnel than the city's Internal Affairs Unit could offer; and many city police officers know and can recognize the Internal Affairs investigators should they try to go undercover, as the FBI agents were able to do.

Quintana was a troubled street kid from the Bronx, son of an alcoholic, abusive father. He sought counseling in an effort to turn his life around. In 1994, he became a national spokesman for the United Way as he explained how a United Way agency made the difference for him.

He entered public office in Buffalo in 1996 as the first Hispanic elected to the Common Council, a politically independent Council member eager to take on the status quo. Just a few years later, the bloom was off his rose.

Supporters complained that Quintana was too convinced that his opinions were right and that questions about his positions implied disloyalty. He was found to be delinquent in paying his federal income taxes three years in a row. He lived in a West Side house, formerly a hospice for AIDS patients, that was sold to his fiancee's family for $70,000 when the city assessed it at more than twice that sum.

In seeking a second term, he chose to run not for his Niagara District seat but instead for an at-large seat. He narrowly lost and returned to the police force, where a brother and a nephew with the Quintana name remain in uniform. The police commissioner at the time, Rocco Diina, called him a solid police officer.

In 2001, Quintana was cited with a violation after an incident with his former girlfriend. He reportedly had thrown her to the floor and later pleaded guilty to the noncriminal charge of harassment. In news coverage of the incident, it was revealed that Quintana had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia -- a chronic musculoskeletal condition -- just two weeks before the encounter.

In 2005, he took a stab at a political comeback when he ran in a crowded Democratic primary to become the Erie County legislator representing Buffalo's West Side. Maria R. Whyte won the race.

Quintana's lawyer, Barry N. Covert, stopped to talk with reporters after the arraignment Wednesday. He noted that Quintana was a distinguished member of the Buffalo police force since 1988 and served four years on the Common Council.

"He has indicated he is not guilty of any of these charges," Covert said, "and he looks forward to being able to defend himself."

News Staff Reporters Phil Fairbanks and T.J. Pignataro contributed to this report.

email: lmichel@buffnews.com and mspina@buffnews.com