Dennis R. Black, the face of UB for decades and a leader in the larger Buffalo community, escaped jail time by a quirk in the state's felony sentencing rules, a State Supreme Court justice told the disgraced administrator.
Instead, Black received five years probation and an order to perform community service.
As Black stood before him Friday morning, Justice John L. Michalski said he thought some time in a local jail would be an appropriate punishment for Black's conviction on charges of second-degree grand larceny and first-degree offering a false instrument for filing in connection with Black's embezzlement of $320,000 from the University of Buffalo.
However, the judge also said he did not believe Black, who has no prior criminal record, deserved to go to state prison for a minimum of three years. And because there is no local jail option in state sentencing rules for Black's nonviolent Class C felony conviction, the judge said, he had to order either at least three years in state prison or probation.
The judge went with five years probation on each count, to run consecutively, plus 2,500 hours of community service. He also fined Black $5,000. Black also has repaid $320,000 to UB and $22,000 in back taxes to New York State.
The judge pointedly made a note that Black's community service could not include any work where he would have access to funds or bank accounts.
"You can't be trusted in that regard," Michalski said.
Until 2016, Black, 62, had been trusted for many years in his post as vice president for university life and services at UB. He served on local charity boards and mentored thousands of students.
But in April 2016, University President Satish K. Tripathi began to question how things were being run in Black's office and asked for an audit of the Faculty Student Association finances.
The audit took nearly two months to complete – and revealed that hundreds of thousands of dollars of money had been spent on unauthorized travel and entertainment.
Tripathi asked Black to resign July 7, 2016.
Black later admitted that he misappropriated $320,000 in university funds to spend on such luxuries as a Saturn Club membership, tickets to Broadway shows and New York Yankees games, and travel for him and his wife to his son’s wedding in Salt Lake City. Black also admitted making charitable contributions in his name with UB funds and then writing off the donations on his state tax return, a separate felony.
Before his sentencing Friday, Black apologized, saying he alone was responsible for the thefts.
"Instead of protecting and uplifting others, I caused harm," Black said.
He told the judge that, in taking the money without permission to give to community groups and join business clubs, he told himself he "was improving university-community relationships, and that was wrong."
He added that he also took money for personal use, "and that was truly wrong."
He described the embarrassment and humiliation he has experienced, especially when calling on friends and family to write letters of support for him to the court after he betrayed their trust. According to the judge, about four dozen people did write letters, and Black said he was sincerely appreciative of that.
"You really are an enigma," Michalski told Black, referencing the letters. "You've done so much good, and so much wrong."
The judge said he felt one letter in particular summed up the case. The writer, whom the judge didn't identify, acknowledged that the money Black took wasn't his to give without UB approval, but said, "It was less about greed and more about ego and public reputation. This is UB's 'public guy,' trying to look good at the big public tables." The thefts were wrong, the writer said, "but perhaps understandable."
"This is where I disagree," Michalski said.
The theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars by a trusted leader who already was being paid nearly $300,000 a year was not understandable at all as far as the judge was concerned, and it was deserving of some jail time. He made it clear that he regretted the sentence he felt was deserved was not a option for him.
The case was prosecuted by Assistant District Attorney Gary M. Ertel, who is now on paternity leave. Filling in for him. ADA Candace Vogel spoke only briefly before sentencing, telling the judge that prosecutors believed that some jail time was warranted in the case, despite the fact that Black has repaid the money.
District Attorney John J. Flynn also felt that Black deserved jail time.
“This should not be a situation where an individual steals public funds, pays it back and all is forgiven," Flynn said in a statement after court. "Mr. Black abused his position of power to steal public dollars. This was not an isolated incident, it went on year after year, charge after charge, trip after trip. ... On top of that he had the nerve to write off on his taxes the donations he made to charity using the money he stole. As district attorney it is my position that the sentence should include incarceration.”
The sentence of probation was what Black's attorney Brian Mahoney had requested, after arguing that his client already has been punished for his crimes.
"Mr. Black has paid a real price in terms of the damage to his career in public humiliation," Mahoney said.
Black said he hopes to use his time on probation, and the rest of his life, trying to "atone" for his actions. After he was forced to resign, Black sold his home in Western new York and moved to Mount Pleasant, S.C.
In recent years, numerous embezzlers have been sentenced to prison terms after stealing similar amounts of money as Black, according to Buffalo News archives.
For example, paralegal Pamela M. Blood was sentenced to 16 months to four years in prison in 2013 for stealing $311,000 from a 77-year-old widow.
Plenty of defendants who admitted stealing a lot less than Black did have also been sentenced to jail.
Katherine Ryan, a former town clerk in Wyoming County who embezzled more than $36,000 from the Town of Castile, was sentenced in 2016 to two to six years in prison after pleading guilty to third-degree grand larceny, tampering with public records and official misconduct.
The punishment for Charmesa Brown of Cheektowaga, who stole $110,174 from a resident of an Amherst assisted-living facility, was one to four years in prison.
Susan E. Johnson was sentenced to six months in jail in 2015 for stealing almost $31,000 from the Erie County Employees Credit Union. Like Black, she was also required to pay full restitution, placed on probation and ordered to perform community service.
Another former UB administrator also was caught up in the audit. Andrea Costantino, 48, of Depew, who was director of campus living until her resignation, pleaded guilty to grand larceny in the fourth degree for stealing $14,664 in university funds. She repaid the money, was ordered to perform 250 hours of community service and received a conditional discharge of her case.
Back at UB, the Faculty Student Association issued a statement indicating it is pleased to have obtained restitution and that it has taken steps to prevent such thefts in the future.It has added independent directors to its board and created an audit committee.
"Also, according to the statement, "A new outside auditor is in place; all revenues transferred from the UBFSA to UB are now verified to be in accounts overseen solely by the UB Office of Finance and Administration; and, the UBFSA’s board now includes seven UB administrative officers, including the UB controller.”
News Staff Reporter Aaron Besecker contributed to this story.