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Hard to uncover the real Tim Wanamaker

From City Hall wunderkind to City Hall thief to car salesman, Timothy E. Wanamaker’s success story is as gripping as his downfall.

Adopted as a child, he never met his biological parents, and after his adoptive parents split up, according to Wanamaker’s Buffalo attorney, he really didn’t have much contact with his adoptive dad either. Eventually, he lost contact with his adoptive mother, too.

Still, Wanamaker put himself through college, got a master’s degree, got married, had a daughter, began a career and by age 46, this economic development guru had gone from being a local economic development officer in Prince George’s County, Md., to a $112,000-a-year deputy commissioner in the City of Alexandria, Va.

In between, of course, was the stint in Buffalo that landed him in court with a felony conviction for using federal anti-poverty money on some $30,000 in personal expenses.

After the fall, he stocked shelves at a KMart before his current job selling cars in Virginia.

Only Wanamaker can say what motivated him to steal anti-poverty money from the Buffalo agency he headed up, and he’s not talking.

But there’s been plenty of speculation in and around City Hall.

Was it greed? A need to impress? A momentary lapse that spiraled out of control? A sense of entitlement? Or was it just doing whatever he could get away with?

Over a year since Wanamaker’s conviction and four months since he was sentenced to three years’ probation, little more is known about why Wanamaker went from being City Hall wunderkind to resident thief.

But interviews with those who worked with Wanamaker in and out of City Hall, and court papers filed by his attorney, portray a self-confident bureaucrat who let his secret spending destroy a fast-moving career that was still on the rise.

“Tim was very good, but turned out he was also, unfortunately, a thief,” said Richard M. Tobe, the current deputy Erie County executive who worked with Wanamaker in a previous job as a City of Buffalo department head.

“He shattered a very, very good career,” Tobe said. “There’s a big lesson here. You just can’t tell about people. People can be more than one thing at a time.”

Wanamaker was plucked out of the Prince George’s County Redevelopment Authority in 2003 by former Mayor Anthony M. Masiello’s search team.

“I’ve only made two visits to your city in my life, and I’ve already fallen in love with Buffalo,” Wanamaker told Buffalo Common Council members prior to being hired.

“I love his energy and his enthusiasm,” Masiello said at the time. “We need someone with new ideas.”

From the beginning, Wanamaker was alternatively viewed as an ambitious opportunist using Buffalo as a stepping stone and a dedicated urban planner hoping to bring new economic development strategies to Buffalo.

He advocated targeted planning – spending larger amounts of money in fewer areas to try to make a difference rather than a scattershot approach across a larger swath of Buffalo. He was big on networking. He got the city to hire a lobbyist in Washington. He was big on staff training. He pushed his staff to attend out-of-state conferences. He attended conferences.

“When Tim came in he was a new face with new ideas, and an understanding of what was working in cities similar to Buffalo. That meant making some changes to how things were being done here and some of that wasn’t going to be all that popular,” said Michael Clarke, executive director of the Local Initiatives Support Corp., a group that works to bring affordable housing to Buffalo.

Some did like what Wanamaker was doing.

“I thought he did a good job,” said North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr. “I respected him. He did something the Council never heard before --- that was to say no.”

“He was trying to look at bigger, long-term projects for the city, which meant not every Council district gets as much Block Grant as they had in the past,” he said.

Others weren’t impressed.

“I never liked him,” said Fillmore Council Member David Franczyk. “He didn’t look you in the eye. I don’t think he had any curiosity or feeling for the city. He was just blathering bureaucratic nonsense.”

His loner-type of personality didn’t help.

“He was not a warm and fuzzy kind of guy,” Golembek said.

Stiil, Wanamaker was often effective, Tobe said.

Wanamaker, Tobe said, specialized in housing and neighborhood development. He helped with the development of Sycamore Village, an expensive but nonetheless successful upscale housing development on the city’s East Side. He worked with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to get several key, stalled projects back on track. He enabled Buffalo to retain HUD funds that were in jeopardy. And except, of course, for his own illegal spending, Wanamaker is credited with helping Buffalo better adhere to HUD spending guidelines.

But Wanamaker nonetheless found it difficult to get things done in Buffalo, attorney James P. Harrington wrote in his pre-sentencing memoradum to the court.

“He had no political connections in the city,” Harrington said. ”This proved to be a plus and a minus. While it was refreshing in local government to have someone hired from outside the area based on qualifications and with no preconceived biases, it was difficult to get things done in the entrenched political quagmire of Buffalo City Hall.”

Things became more challenging when Masiello left office, and a new administration came in, Harrington said.

Wanamaker remained in his $94,300-a-year job when Byron W. Brown became mayor in 2006, but Wanamaker never felt part of Brown’s inner circle, Harrington said.

“While this was good for his independence and relationships with many who wanted to do projects within the city, it was an impediment in the way that things actually get done here,” Harrington said.

Some in and out of City Hall who knew Wanamaker speculated his out-of-state travel became more frequent as he became more frustrated with the Brown administration, and he therefore felt he should start making contacts to find a new job. Others disagreed, saying Wanamaker’s focus during his travels was on promoting the City of Buffalo – not himself.

Regardless, the travel increased. And so did his Wanamaker’s frustration with Buffalo.

“After a number of frustrating years, he moved on to a position in another city,” Harrington wrote.

At that point, Wanamaker‘s was still a success story.

Wanamaker left Buffalo in March 2008 to become city administrator in Ingelwood, Calif., a city of just over 100,000 people in Los Angeles County.

The job proved to be a challenge.

After just less than two years there, Wanamaker abruptly resigned in March 2010. He then started a $112,000-a-year job in August 2010 as deputy director of general services for the City of Alexandria, Va., overseeing the city’s fleet, mail room, real estate and general administration.

Wanamaker remained in that position until Dec. 2, 2011, when he resigned following his Nov. 30 guilty plea in federal court in Buffalo.

Just before Wanamaker was scheduled to be sentenced, Harrington, his Buffalo attorney, described the city’s former economic development czar as a contrite man, ashamed for having stolen funds from Buffalo and having humiliated his family.

Wanamaker’s crime, Harrington wrote, was a foolish act out of character for a normally quiet, contemplative man who had never been in trouble before, and has not been in trouble since.

“After Tim’s plea and loss of his job, he was depressed and full of self-loathing for what he had done to himself and his family,” Harrington wrote in the sentencing memo. “He lost his career in urban planning which he had worked so hard for in college, graduate school and previous jobs.”

Wanamaker, Harrington said, also put his marriage in jeopardy, but his wife, Vena, has stood by her husband and is supporting him “like he supported her in her fight with breast cancer this past year.”

Perhaps, Harrington wrote, “the truest measure of one’s character is how he responds to adversity and picks himself up when down, especially from his own actions.”

After his initial depression, Harrington said, Wanamaker recognized he had to pick himself up, and support his family.

In Janaury 2012, two months after Wanamaker’s arrest, he took a job stocking selves at Kmart for $8.75 an hour. By the time he was sentenced in March, he was working as a car salesman.

“Tim swallowed his pride and started over,” Harrington said. “He recognizes the dignity in all types of work.”