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Some went to Hamburg camp for free, but DA says that’s not a crime

Some children did attend Hamburg day camps for free, but Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III determined there is no evidence that a crime was committed.

Allegations that the children and grandchildren of some employees got free or reduced admission to the town’s popular summer day camp were made public in early September, and the district attorney started investigating the allegations, which centered on Hamburg Highway Superintendent Tom Best Sr.

Best said the charges are a political witch hunt, because his son, Tom Best Jr., is running for a seat on the Hamburg Town Board Tuesday. Channel 2 disclosed the allegations six days before the primary, which Best Jr. won.

Supervisor Steven J. Walters hired an accounting firm to conduct an audit of the program, and turned the findings over to the district attorney’s office, which reviewed the audit, and interviewed Recreation Department Director Martin Denecke, Senior Recreation Supervisor Curt Herrmann and the auditors.

The audit showed that about 13 children connected to Best Sr. were not required to pay for the camps between 2010 and 2014, and the free sessions had a value of $17,000, according to Sedita. The children include several of Best Sr.’s grandchildren and the children of some of Best’s staff members.

But there was no evidence of theft of services, larceny or falsifying records, the district attorney said in a letter to Walters.

“In sum, neither the audit’s findings nor the available evidence justify the lodging of state criminal charges against anyone,” Sedita said in the letter which is dated Monday. “This conclusion does not prevent you or the Town Board from taking appropriate administrative action.”

Sedita also said in the letter there is no evidence that Best “employed any coercion.” He also noted that Herrmann had the authority to modify fees for children who demonstrated financial hardship, and “thus it reasonably could have been believed (by Herrmann or another) that he had the authority to waive the day camp fees entirely,” the letter stated.

Best said he’s pleased with the district attorney’s conclusions, but he’s not sure who those 13 children are. He said he has eight grandchildren, and four of them are not the right age for the camp. He said he believes two went to the camp, but he didn’t know they went for free until the probe was revealed. He also denied asking Herrmann for a break on fees.

“Did some of my grandkids go for free? Yes. Did I ask for discounts? No,” he said, adding that some of the parents of his grandchildren also work for the town.

Walters took issue with Sedita’s conclusions, and said the district attorney got the number of children and the value of the unpaid fees wrong. He said there are 16 children with connections to Best, as well as seven others, and the total amount of services rendered for free is just under $32,000.

Walters also said he can’t believe there is no section of the law that would address the situation. He said the district attorney’s conclusions seem to set a “precedent” that a government official has the ability to give services for free to those who ask. He also thinks Sedita’s office should have interviewed Best Sr.

“I’m a little surprised and a little concerned that Tom Best himself or someone who received these free services weren’t spoken to,” Walters said.

Best Sr. insists he never asked for free day camp, and when he heard that a secretary in his office was offered a free program earlier this year, he contacted Herrmann and told him not to give freebies, and if he did, he would see that he got fired.

Best said he oversees about 60 employees.

“Because they work in my department, I’m getting blamed for it?” he said. “Why would I ask for my staff members to go free? I never did.”

Sedita also noted in the letter that it is his policy not to comment on a criminal investigation until someone is charged with a crime, and he thanked Walters for bringing the matter to the district attorney’s office before charges were filed.

Sedita told The Buffalo News that usually the first time his office sees a file is after the police have made an arrest.

“Somebody there, I don’t know who it was, is alerting the media there before the citizens have been accused,” he said. “I think that’s wrong to do that sort of thing.”

Walters said now that the district attorney’s investigation has been completed, the town will thoroughly investigate the practice of free day camp fees, and will be looking into other programs as well.