Six years after the FBI accused him of faking an on-duty injury, former Buffalo Police Officer Robert Quintana is entering a diversion program that could spare him a criminal conviction.
Charged with defrauding the city's "injured on duty" program, the now retired officer and former Buffalo Common Council member agreed to the diversion program on the eve of his federal court trial.
For Quintana, a street cop who became a national spokesman for the United Way and later a promising political leader, this could be the beginning of the end of his legal battle with federal prosecutors.
If he completes the one-year program, he would avoid a trial and possible felony conviction.
"The abuse of any program involving taxpayer money is something this office takes very seriously," U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy Jr. said in a statement Tuesday. "These cases paid dividends for the taxpayers of the City of Buffalo."
When Quintana was arrested, he became a poster child for prosecutors pursuing fraud and abuse within the "injured on duty" program. The program allows officers to be off work but collect their salary, tax-free.
Kennedy said there were more than 100 officers receiving the benefit when Quintana was first charged and now, there are just a dozen. He estimated the city's savings at $10 million a year.
Quintana's entry into a diversion program operated by federal probation officials became public just days before he was scheduled to go on trial and more than six years after he was first charged with abusing the police department's disability program.
At the time of his arrest in 2012, he faced allegations that he had been on paid leave since March 2005, more than seven years, but was observed by FBI agents cleaning tables and lifting boxes at the Niagara Cafe in Buffalo.
Federal prosecutors claimed Quintana worked at his family's restaurant while at the same time collecting his "injured on duty" salary of more than $60,000 a year.
Kennedy said the government decided to support a diversion program when it became clear that conflicting medical opinions about Quintana's disability would turn his trial into a "battle of experts."
"Officer Quintana was unquestionably injured on duty and disabled as a result," Kennedy said. "The extent and duration of his disability was the subject of disagreement among medical professionals and, as a result, the uniqueness of this case lent itself to an alternative resolution."
As part of his diversion program, Kennedy said, Quintana will be required to abide by certain conditions, including the repayment of some of the police pay he received while on disability leave.
Defense lawyer Barry N. Covert confirmed Kennedy's account of what led to the diversion program, but declined to comment further.
From Day One, Quintana argued that, yes, he worked at the Niagara Cafe but only for an hour or so each day and only when his pain would permit it. He also claims he was never paid for his work at the restaurant.
"When he was up to it, he would go to the restaurant," Covert said of his client at the time of his arrest. "And he never hid that."
For years, there were two criminal prosecutions of police officers accused of faking on-duty injuries. Quintana was one. Patrick S. O’Mara was the other.
As part of a plea deal with prosecutors, O’Mara admitted cheating Buffalo’s injured on duty system. The retired police lieutenant pleaded guilty to wire fraud and admitted illegally collecting $40,000 in disability pay in 2011 and 2012.
O’Mara told his bosses at Buffalo Police headquarters that he had limited or no use of his right arm – he claimed he injured it in 2005 while lifting two reams of copy paper – and couldn’t do his job.
The FBI investigated O'Mara and discovered he was working a second job as an organist at St. Mark Catholic Church in North Buffalo.
For Quintana, the end of his criminal case marks the latest chapter in a high-profile career that began when the young officer with the hardscrabble upbringing attracted the attention of the United Way.
He became a spokesman for the charity and would later use his name recognition to enter politics. He ran for Niagara Council Member in the mid-1990s and won, becoming the first Hispanic person elected to the Council.
In 1999, he gave up his district seat to run for at-large seat but lost. At that point, he returned to his job as a police officer.
He was suspended without pay after his arrest in 2012 but later retired from the force.