Willie Santiago, an assistant foreman in the Department of Public Works who told acquaintances he was going to sue the Reporter for libel, copped a plea last week in connection with the theft of thousands of dollars worth of blacktop millings.
Also taking a plea bargain in the case was well-known contractor Armand Cerrone, whom law enforcement authorities said was the beneficiary of the theft.
The asphalt milling, generated when streets are resurfaced, is normally used by the city to surface unimproved alleyways and parking lots, or sold to individuals and businesses. During the summer of 2001, however, the material 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.
The city was never paid for the material, and Public Works Department Director Paul Colangelo adopted an official stance of cluelessness about the theft. Although City Council members were told he was suspended, Santiago was permitted to take an unpaid leave of absence, and was never even formally reprimanded.
He reportedly spent his month-long vacation golfing at Hyde Park and socializing at the Greens restaurant there. Most recently, he appeared as the Public Works Department spokesman on television during the Christmas snowstorm when Colangelo apparently had better things to do.
Following an exclusive story on the theft in the Aug. 22, 2001, edition of the Reporter, then-Council members Barbara Ann Geracitano and John Accardo asked District Attorney Matthew J. Murphy III to look into the matter. Newspaper staffers met with investigators from the city police, sheriff's department and district attorney's office, and turned over a series of photographs showing the distribution of the ill-gotten gains.
In an attempt to discredit the Reporter story, the Niagara Gazette interviewed City Administrator Al Joseph, who said that the case had been blown out of proportion, that only a few truckloads of milling had been involved and that the material was essentially worthless.
Law enforcement took an entirely different view, and a grand jury was convened.
Santiago pleaded guilty before Judge Angelo Morinello last week to a charge of disorderly conduct. He had been charged with criminal facilitation. It is unknown what, if any, action the city administration will take against him. Cerrone also pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, after having been charged with criminal possession of stolen property. He was ordered to pay the city $2,500 in restitution. Both got off easy.
This was a case the Elia administration swore up and down didn't happen and that the Niagara Gazette did its utmost to cover up. This newspaper was denigrated and threatened for reporting on it, and Barbara Ann Geracitano and John Accardo were accused of playing partisan politics when they called for an investigation.
But it all comes out in the wash and now, 18 months later, a couple of crooks have been brought to some kind of justice.
"This was never about politics for me," Geracitano told the Reporter. "This was about the theft of city property, pure and simple."
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||February 11 2003|