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Governments should heed the lesson stemming from Wanamaker’s theft

On his occasional meetings with The Buffalo News editorial board, Timothy Wanamaker seemed like a competent man with real ideas on how to improve Buffalo. What no one knew was that the city’s director of strategic planning was milking federal anti-poverty funds for all they were worth and, after that, he started bilking the system. It’s been a hard- and well-earned fall since then for the former $100,000-a-year city official who is now selling cars.

There were two problems that eased Wanamaker to his ruin. One is whatever cauldron of issues that drove him to abuse his position and turn himself into a felon. The other is a lack of a policy or sufficient oversight that would deter unethical and illegal behavior or, at least, identify it sooner if deterrence didn’t work.

Only Wanamaker, or others similarly tempted to rip off the system and destroy themselves, can deal with the former issue. But every mayor, every town supervisor, every city council, town board and village board can do something about the latter, and with Wanamaker’s flaming example they have urgent reason to do so.

Start with the most head-spinning lapse at City Hall: When Wanamaker was exploiting the system for all it was worth, the only person who signed off on his expense reports was one of his subordinates. What employee is going to sound the alarm on the person responsible for his continued employment?

In addition, according to documents obtained by The News, the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. that funded his travel had no policy on spending limits or travel expenses. Thus, while attending a legitimate conference in Las Vegas, it was perfectly legal for Wanamaker to book himself into a $404-a-night room and rent a luxury car.

What wasn’t legal – and what led to his undoing – was extending his stay after the conference ended, and continuing to bill BERC for his $404 room, his luxury car and meals.

This was no one-off. It was a pattern that repeated itself. He spent extravagantly on a business trip to Miami Beach and, once again, extended his stay, this time moving to an even pricier hotel. All in all, Wanamaker took 38 trips over two years – more than once a month on average – with few questions asked.

He also used his BERC credit card for questionable expenses while in Buffalo, among other expenses, buying a $90 bouquet and get-well card for an employee, a $225 meal at Buffalo Chophouse and a $2,900 Mac Pro laptop.

Clearly, the city needed better oversight on expenses run up by its employees. And while it is possible that, of all the municipalities in Western New York, Buffalo is alone in failing to control these expenses, it seems unlikely.

This is a moment not just for Buffalo, but for all public entities, including school districts, to review their policies to ensure that they have in place appropriate limits on travel and other expenses, that those expenses are incurred for legitimate reasons, that somebody is reviewing those expenses and, finally, that the reviewer is not a subordinate of the person running up those bills.

Evidently, that needs to be said.