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By Mike Hudson

Investigators probing the theft of tons of asphalt milling generated by the city's street resurfacing program last summer are prepared to recommend felony grand theft charges against at least one high-ranking city employee, the Reporter has learned.

An arrest in the case is expected sometime over the next two weeks. "There are definitely going to be charges filed on this," a source close to the investigation said.

"We've taken this to its conclusion, as far as we can go."

In an Aug. 22 Reporter exclusive, it was revealed that more than 100 truckloads of asphalt millings -- which have since been valued by investigators at more than $19,000 -- were diverted from the city's Corporation Yard and sent to various locations around the city owned by private individuals.

The material, normally used by the city to surface unimproved alleyways and parking lots, wound up instead in a parking lot adjacent to IDS Lakes Pipe Supply on Hyde Park Boulevard, in a nearby lot used by Baker Trucking and in the parking lot of the National Vacuum Corp. on Packard Road.

An assistant city Streets Department foreman, Willie Santiago, took a 30-day unpaid leave of absence after administration officials learned the milling had gone missing. Santiago reportedly told city officials he was unaware that the milling had been used in the past, and thought he was saving the city money by giving the material away to private interests.

"He (Santiago) said this kind of thing has been going on for years," a top Public Works Department source told the Reporter. "I can tell you that it most definitely has not.

"He says he gave it away, but if he didn't make any money on this, he's even stupider than he looks," he added.

City Council members Barbara Geracitano and John Accardo -- who asked District Attorney Matt Murphy to look into the affair -- said they were led to believe Santiago had been suspended, only to learn subsequently they'd been lied to.

Documents made available under the Freedom of Information Act -- and signed off on by Public Works Director Paul Colangelo and Director of Personnel Paul Dziama -- showed Santiago was permitted to take a voluntary leave instead.

Another official eager to sweep the incident under the rug was City Administrator Al Joseph. In an interview with the Niagara Gazette after the story broke, Joseph said the Reporter had blown the case out of proportion, and that only a few truckloads of millings had been involved.

Joseph's investigation might charitably be called inadequate. In reality, sources close to the investigation said last week that the Reporter had actually underestimated the magnitude of the theft.

"A total of between 142 and 148 truckloads were stolen," a source said. "After you guys broke the story, the guy at National Vacuum said he had to actually go out and buy the material commercially. He told us they were paying $135 a truckload for it." Investigators have been able to account for about 100 loads, but where the others went remains a mystery, he added.

"It doesn't matter whether this material was sold or given away," he said. "In either case, it constitutes theft of city property."

Evidence in the case includes a series of photographs taken on Aug. 3 at the Hyde Park location clearly showing numerous loads dumped around the lot, which is owned by local contractor Armand Cerrone. The photographs, made available to the Reporter by an anonymous source, were turned over to investigators from the district attorney's office and the city police department after they appeared in the paper.

Geracitano, who was accused of engaging in partisan politics when she brought the theft to the attention of city officials in August, said she feels vindicated by the results of the investigation.

"It was clear from the beginning that the administration didn't want this looked into," she said. "I asked (Assistant Corporation Counsel) Tom O'Donnell for help in drafting the letter to the district attorney's office asking for an investigation and he refused. I had to write the letter myself."

Geracitano said she remains troubled by the fact that nearly 150 truckloads of city property could be stolen without the department head, Paul Colangelo, even noticing.

"This appears to have been a major operation involving a number of city workers that took place over a period of time," she said. "Who's in charge over there?"

Ironically, Colangelo himself alluded to the theft recently in asking the council to hire a $40,000-a-year deputy director to help him run the Department of Public Works.

Once an arrest is made, a plea bargain agreement will likely be offered in an attempt to implicate others in the theft, sources said.

"Sometimes you start off with a little mouse and he leads you to the big cheese," a city police captain familiar with the case told the Reporter.