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County jail chief exits over car damage tale

The head of Erie County's jail division left his high-ranking job Tuesday after admitting to his bosses that he gave bogus information for a police report about vandalism to his county-issued car.

Robert A. Koch Jr., who until Tuesday directed the 700-member force at the county's two jails, reported that the take-home car was vandalized at his residence in Hamburg when, in fact, it was damaged June 1 outside the Taste of Country concert at Buffalo's Coca-Cola Field.

Koch was there as part of the private security force keeping order at the concert, which turned ugly when stormy weather prevented headliner Eric Church from performing. An angry concertgoer, perhaps, smashed out the Chevrolet Impala's rear window and dented the side.

Koch, however, had not obtained permission to drive his county-owned vehicle to the event, according to Undersheriff Mark N. Wipperman, Sheriff Timothy B. Howard's second-in-command.

When Koch the next morning called in a criminal-mischief complaint to a Sheriff's Office lieutenant, he said he had just noticed the damage and led the lieutenant to write that it was inflicted outside the Koch home.

Koch actually drove the Impala home in that condition the night before, a distance of about 10 1/2 miles.

"Bob Koch admitted to the incident, admitted to the poor judgment he used and took responsibility for his actions," Wipperman told The Buffalo News soon after meeting Tuesday afternoon with Koch and Howard. "He apologized to the sheriff and I."

Wipperman said Howard considered Koch's conduct a "fatal flaw" barring him from further employment. While Tuesday was Koch's last day at the Sheriff's Office, he will use vacation time and compensatory time as a bridge until he arranges his retirement. At 53, he has more than 30 years of service.

The sheriff and Wipperman will soon select an acting jail management superintendent. They then expect to form a committee to interview applicants interested in running the $80 million division permanently.

It's debatable as to whether Koch committed a crime. The misdemeanor of "offering a false instrument for filing" occurs when someone knowingly provides false information to a public office or a public servant while aware it will become a public record.

But a former prosecutor for Erie County theorized that the District Attorney's Office would not pursue the matter. Koch was not trying to defraud anyone; county mechanics were going to fix the window no matter where the car was parked. He apparently was simply trying to avoid an issue with his employer.

The sheriff's jail division has been criticized over the years for, among other things, escapes, beatings, a high suicide rate, freeing dangerous inmates by mistake, depriving inmates of vital medicines and falling short of numerous state rules.

But after the U.S. Justice Department sued to force better conditions, and the State Commission of Correction issued a number of scathing reports, the county has focused on revamping the Holding Center in downtown Buffalo and county Correctional Facility in Alden.

In addition to his duties leading the jails, Koch was recently elected vice chairman of the county's Community Corrections Advisory Board, a County Legislature-created panel that weighs in on problems at the jails, especially at the busy Holding Center.

The advisory board chairman is the Rev. Eugene L. Pierce, a former deputy superintendent at the county Correctional Facility and a critic of Howard's oversight of the county jail system.

"This is what we have come to expect, a lack of truthfulness, a lack of morality, a lack of honesty," Pierce said when asked to comment about Koch's sudden retirement. "It's another sad chapter in the life of the personnel at the Holding Center and the Correctional Facility."

Koch, who did not comment for this article, started working for county government in 1981, county records show. He rose through the jail division ranks, and in 2010, Howard named him jail management superintendent. It was a formality because Koch had been the official atop both jail facilities for years, but his title didn't show it, and the State Commission of Correction wanted to see a clear chain of command in Erie County.

The new title came with a $10,000 raise, even while the jails were under intense scrutiny because of their assorted issues. For 2011, then-County Executive Chris Collins stripped Koch of the pay bump, bringing his base salary back to about $95,000 a year. Koch, however, remained as the jail division's top official.

Despite the new and intense focus on better managing the county jails, management has been uneven this year. Inmates in March, April and May were released by mistake -- foul-ups attributed to paperwork errors and short-staffing.

Jail personnel have released inmates by mistake in other years as well. And jail personnel have mistakenly held inmates for too long. The News revealed in 2011 that one inmate remained in the Holding Center for 28 months, without charges, when federal authorities were ready to deport him. The 28 months of confinement cost taxpayers an estimated $85,000.

Wipperman began inquiring about Koch's criminal-mischief complaint after The News presented him requests for information about the report. For Wipperman and others at Sheriff's Headquarters, it was a sad day as Koch left the office for the last time late Tuesday.

He was allowed to drive home in his county-issued vehicle.

The car was then to be immediately retrieved by a sheriff's employee and returned to Buffalo.

News Staff Reporter Dan Herbeck contributed to this report.