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Cheektowaga highway chief, subject of probe, sues town for defamation

The Cheektowaga Town Council two years ago investigated possible misconduct within its Highway Department. That investigation went nowhere.

But now the highway superintendent has filed  a defamation lawsuit against the town because of the probe.

The council hired the Phillips Lytle law firm to investigate possible abuses of overtime and other matters in the Highway Department, an inquiry initiated shortly after Highway Superintendent Mark Wegner was elected chairman of the Cheektowaga Democratic Committee, according to the suit.

The law firm found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing, Wegner says in his lawsuit.

Wegner alleges that the council voted unanimously in February 2015 to send the law firm’s findings to the State Attorney General’s Office for further review and that town leaders then went public with their allegations.

They did this, Wegner said, even though they knew there was nothing to charge him with.

In a deposition filed with his lawsuit, Wegner explains why he believes some in town government were so aggressive in trying to prosecute him.

“The criminal accusations were a purely political action to blacken my good name,” Wegner says.

"Shoddy bookkeeping" is what started the chain of litigation, Town Supervisor Diane Benczkowski said on Monday.

"This is why the board approved the hiring of a secretary for the highway superintendent," said Benczkowski. "It's unfortunate that this became a witch hunt, because it did tarnish the highway superintendent's reputation. However, he did win reelection."

In response to the lawsuit, the town contends that no defamatory statements were made and that the town officials were performing their duties in good faith when they investigated the Highway Department.

The suit alleges that former Supervisor Mary Holtz and Council Members Gerald Kaminski, James Rogowski and Christine Adamczyk showed a “reckless disregard for the truth” in publicizing what the lawsuit calls their false accusations about the department.

"When I decided to run for office, I didn't sign up for all this bickering and infighting," said Gerald Kaminski, town councilman.

The harm to Wegner was compounded, he says, when news media reported that the town was investigating whether a nonunion employee – Wegner’s deputy – was abusing compensatory time, whether town equipment was loaned for use on private property and whether Wegner had given a load of asphalt millings to a private country club to repair cart paths.

Wegner says the investigation was a smear campaign lodged in retaliation for his defeat of former chairman Frank Max for the Democratic committee post. Holtz and the three council members were Max supporters.

At the time, Benczkowski was a council member. She is not named in the lawsuit, but she did support having the Attorney General’s Office look at the Phillips Lytle report.

"Let’s try to take the politics out of the report and get an independent decision, because I don’t know what’s legal and what’s not legal in all this,” Benczkowski said at the time.

The Attorney General’s Office quickly declined to investigate the matter, sending a letter to the town in March 2015 saying, "Your complaint does not warrant action by this office at this time.”

Undeterred, the council also reached out to the Erie County District Attorney’s Office. Former acting District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty Jr. said recently he remembered the case because it involved some payroll “record keeping” on Post-It notes.

“The DA’s Office never received sufficient evidence to initiate an investigation,” Flaherty said. “There was nothing to prosecute.”

Flaherty also said it was unusual for a municipality to hire an outside law firm to investigate possible misconduct rather than contact the DA initially.

"The town wasted approximately $100,000 raising much ado about nothing,” Benczkowski said at the time.

“He’s suffered a lot of adverse comment as a result of this,”said  his attorney, Michael J. Stachowski. “People are still talking about it.”

The political infighting has not disrupted town services, maintained Benczkowski, who said the Highway Department remained one of her key interests.

"The Highway Department is its own department run by an elected official," said Benczkowski. "The Town Board sets the budget, that's all. The Highway Department is one of my priorities. I oversee it closely, and we work together. We have better communication than before."

Stachowski said that, although the allegations did not force Wegner out of office, Wegner paid a high price personally.

“He believes that it cost him his marriage,” Stachowski said. “He would say, if you asked, ‘My wife couldn’t handle the press.’ ”

Stachowski said that a March court date for the case will have to be rescheduled due to a staffing conflict, but that Wegner and the town are also discussing a possible resolution to the lawsuit that he believes could benefit all parties, including the people of Cheektowaga.

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