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DA investigates Town of Hamburg day camp fees

The Erie County District Attorney’s Office is joining a probe of Hamburg Town Hall centering on claims that children of connected families were allowed to attend town day camp programs free of charge.

Two sources with knowledge of the situation said one town employee – Senior Recreation Supervisor Curt S. Herrmann – has been questioned by investigators in the office of Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III, though no charges have been filed against him nor is he currently connected to any suspicion of wrongdoing.

Much of the situation revolves around Highway Superintendent Thomas M. Best Sr., identified in a Friday report by Channel 2 News that claimed documents it obtained indicate his relatives were among those attending the camp without paying.

Best responded on Saturday, claiming the leaks are timed to “dirty the Best name” as his son – Thomas M. Best Jr. – competes in Thursday’s Democratic primary election against Councilwoman Cheryl Potter-Juda.

“I have never in my 42-year career in government ever got any free benefits for my kids or grandkids,” he said. “This all happening five days before the primary? Come on.”

He said two or three of his eight grandchildren attended town day camp several years ago, but none in the past year. He said he also understood some children and grandchildren of town employees have received discounts for day camp and other recreational programs in the past, all allowable under town policy.

The town runs two day camp programs for children ages 6 to 14 at prices of up to $180 per week.

Best also shot back at Republican Supervisor Steven J. Walters Sr., whom he said has not caught any discrepancies in town income despite earning an extra stipend as chief financial officer.

“It seems to me this investigation should not be about kids attending day camp; it should be about the CFO of the Town of Hamburg,” he said. “If this is being done year after year? Where is the CFO?”

Walters said Saturday a former employee dropped off documents last Monday allegedly showing the misappropriation of money.

“We’re in the process of reviewing it all,” Walters said, declining further specific comment.

Speaking “hypothetically,” however, Walters said it is possible investigations could stem from any failure of town employees or systems guarding against improper use of town funds or violation of policies.

He also rejected any notion that he is responsible for potential problems.

“Not specific to this case, I would find it very interesting that somebody would not pay for a service and then blame someone else for not catching it fast enough,” Walters said. “That is so unbelievable that it’s hard to come up with a comment.”

The supervisor said the town’s review of the situation will be finished “sooner rather than later.”

Martin C. Denecke, director of the town Youth, Recreation and Senior Department, also confirmed that the town is conducting its own internal investigation, but would not offer any further comment.

Best, meanwhile, said he will seek his own probe on how lists of children attending the town day camp were turned over to reporters. He suspects it was a town employee with “political ties.”

“How could a Town Hall list of juvenile names and their dates of birth be turned over to (TV) news?” he asked. “I will call for an outside or state audit to see where the problem exists.”

Councilman Michael P. Quinn Jr., who is Hamburg Democratic chairman, also said Saturday he will contact the state Comptroller’s Office on Tuesday to seek an audit.