Some stole to cover gambling debts. Others financed a lifestyle of luxury. One man paid for a $10,000 hair transplant.
Going back decades, large-scale embezzlement is nothing new for the Buffalo area.
A longtime financial official for Towne Automotive Group on Tuesday admitted stealing $4.1 million from the company. That figure is believed to be the largest single embezzlement in Erie County history.
Paul Marinaccio Sr. knows what it's like to fall victim to an embezzler. His company's bookkeeper, who was a family friend, took money over a five-year period from the business, Accadia Site Contracting of Depew.
At the time of her sentencing, authorities said Debora K. Gramza stole more than $700,000. In January 2014, Gramza was sentenced to 2 1/3 to 7 years in prison.
A little more than three years later, Marinaccio still sounds hurt. He said he hasn't gotten even one penny paid back, and he doesn't expect to see anything.
In addition, Gramza got out of prison under an early-release program.
"She didn't even spend a year and a half in jail," he said. "It was a kick in the face."
His company's gotten back on track, though the future wasn't always so clear. Thanks to his employees, the company was able to overcome what happened, he said. Still, the pain was significant, he said.
Here is a list of the Buffalo area embezzlers convicted of stealing huge sums in the past 25 years, according to Buffalo News archives:
- Billie E. Becker, a longtime comptroller of Towne Automotive Group, was sentenced to 4 to 12 years in prison in June 2017 for stealing $4.1 million from her employer.
- Lee D. Burns pleaded guilty in January 2006 to stealing nearly $4 million from Servotronics Inc., an Elma manufacturing company, from June 1983 to April 2005. Officials did not disclose what Burns, the company's chief financial officer, did with the money. Burns was sentenced to 4 1/2 to 13 1/2 years in prison.
- Kenneth P. Bernas, a former attorney, was sentenced to 2 1/3 to 7 years in prison in February 2011 for swindling clients out of $3.1 million. Authorities said he took out pre-settlement loans in the names of his personal-injury clients without their knowledge.
- Andrew Belton was convicted in February 1997 of embezzling $2.2 million from his employer. Belton was the chief fiscal officer for Foster Wheeler Ltd., a St. Catharines, Ont., company, and used phony invoices over nine years to funnel money to bank accounts under an assumed name. Belton was sentenced to 37 months in prison.
- Joseph V. Raymond was sentenced to up to 12 months in prison in September 2011 for stealing nearly $1.8 million in surgical devices over nearly five years.
- Edward J. Jarosz Jr. pleaded guilty in September 1993 to embezzling more than $1.5 million from his employer to pay off gambling debts. He was sentenced to four to 12 years in prison.
- Anthony F. Franjoine admitted in July 1991 embezzling $1 million from the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo between 1981 and 1987. Franjoine's defense attorney said at the time he had no idea why his client stole the money. He was sentenced to 2 2/3 to eight years in prison.
- Debra A. Davis in April 2013 admitted stealing $1.3 million from American Stainless Corp. of Buffalo, where she worked as a bookkeeper. Authorities said she wrote checks to herself and to cash between October 2010 and September 2012. She spent the money on gambling and buying a company for her husband. She was sentenced to 2 1/3 to 7 years in prison.
- Joseph C. Talarico, a former union president, pleaded guilty in February 1998 to embezzling $925,000 from United Food & Commercial Workers District Union No. 1. The stolen money supported a luxurious lifestyle, authorities said, including a $10,000 hair transplant. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison.
- Mary Jane Hagler in October 2013 was sentenced to two to four years in prison for stealing nearly $800,000 from a Town of Tonawanda property management company. Authorities said she stole the money by writing checks to herself between January 2003 and December 2012 in order to support her gambling habit.
- Mark D. Deinhart, a disbarred Buffalo lawyer, in November 1999 was issued a second prison term and ordered to repay nearly $800,000 he swindled from several estates. He was already in federal prison at the time for a fraud conviction.
People embezzle for a variety of reasons and organizations both large and small are susceptible to being victimized, said Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn Jr., whose office has a bureau focused on white-collar crimes.
Businesses and organizations should take precautions to prevent money from going missing. It starts with having more than one or two people taking care of the finances, Flynn said.
"You've got to make sure you have someone who's checking over your bookkeeper," he said.
Flynn said the Towne Automotive case broke only because of the "dumb luck" that Billie B. Becker was out of the office when the credit card company called the auto dealer. Usually, these cases arise when companies or groups bring a complaint to either the DA's Office, or the Attorney General's or U.S. Attorney's offices and they investigate.
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