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Judge wanted jail for UB embezzler Dennis Black, but settled for probation

After stealing $320,000 from the University at Buffalo, using the money to polish his own public profile as well as that of the school, Dennis R. Black will not spend a day in jail.

Black, 62, has repaid the money he stole and $22,000 in state taxes that he owed on his illicit income.

That restitution factored into State Supreme Court Justice John L. Michalski’s decision Friday to sentence the former UB administrator to five years probation, 2,500 hours of community service and a $5,000 fine.

The judge said he believed Black should spend some time behind bars — but he didn’t think Black should go to state prison. State sentencing guidelines did not allow him to order local jail time – one year or less — for Black’s convictions on Class C nonviolent felonies of second-degree grand larceny and first-degree offering a false instrument for filing. The minimum prison sentence Black could have received was an indeterminate one-to-three-year state prison term.

Because Black has no prior criminal record and paid back all the money he took, the judge decided to go with probation.

District Attorney John J. Flynn said he was disappointed with that decision.

“The fact that he is a public official — he was the No. 3 person in charge at UB, one of the biggest universities in the state, even in the country — I feel he should be held to a higher standard, due to his position of trust,” Flynn said. “Elected or not elected, it doesn’t matter. He totally used the money for his own purposes.”

The DA scoffed at the idea that Black was less culpable because much of the stolen money was donated to local charities and arts organizations.

“That’s ridiculous,” Flynn said. “You don’t get to use stolen money to give to charities, and on top of that, he takes a tax write-off for the donations. It’s preposterous to think that he did any good here at all.”

Thefts of similar amounts of money have resulted in differing sentences locally, although complete restitution may be a factor.

Flynn pointed out that in December a woman who embezzled nearly $500,000 from her employer, a doctor, was sentenced to two to four years in state prison.

Justine Smith, 52, said she took the money because of an addiction to shopping. Unlike Black, she only repaid $61,600. Insurance covered much of the rest and Smith was ordered to repay the full amount over time once she is released.

And in 2013, paralegal Pamela M. Blood was sentenced to 16 months to four years in prison for stealing $311,000 from a 77-year-old widow. It is unclear if Blood ever was able to repay the money.

Other embezzlers whose thefts were similar to Black’s have received probation. Making quick restitution often appears to be the key.

In 2015, Robert Coppola Jr., who stole more than $200,000 from PCI International, was sentenced to probation when he repaid the money.

In 2014, Donald Gubbins sold his real estate holdings to repay $215,000 he stole from an 87-year-old aunt to avoid jail, even though the victim had since died.

While Black expressed remorse for his actions and a desire to “atone” for his wrongdoing, Michalski pointedly noted that Black’s community service could not include any position in which he would have access to money or bank accounts.

“You can’t be trusted in that regard,” Michalski said.

It has been a spectacular fall from grace for the man who for decades was the public face of the university. Until 2016, Black was vice president for university life and services, a go-to person for students and the community.

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, which took nearly two months to complete, revealed that hundreds of thousands of dollars had been spent on unauthorized travel and entertainment.

Dennis Black at center of investigation over UB spending

Tripathi in July 2016 asked Black to resign. Even then, Black indicated the problems were related to bookkeeping involving a few hundred or thousands of dollars. He sold his Amherst home and moved to Mount Pleasant, S.C.

Once the investigation was completed, Black 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 to various groups 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.
Speaking quietly but clearly, 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 much of what they said made Black’s crimes only more puzzling.

“You really are an enigma,” Michalski told Black. “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.

“It was less about greed and more about ego and public reputation,” the person wrote. “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 was being paid nearly $300,000 a year was not understandable as far as the judge was concerned, and he said it deserved some jail time.

He made it clear that he regretted the sentence that he felt was deserved — a year in jail — was not an option for him.

Assistant District Attorney Gary M. Ertel, who is now on paternity leave, prosecuted the case. Co-counsel Candace Vogel spoke briefly before sentencing, telling the judge that prosecutors believed that some jail time was warranted.

Though prosecutors objected, defense attorney Brian Mahoney said he believed probation was the correct sentence, saying that his client already has been punished immeasurably for his crimes.

“Mr. Black has paid a real price in terms of the damage to his career and in public humiliation,” Mahoney said.

Black said he hopes to use his time on probation and the rest of his life to “atone” for his actions.

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.

After Black’s sentencing, UB’s 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, including adding independent directors to its board and creating an audit committee.

“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,” the statement said.

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