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By Mike Hudson

The Niagara County District Attorney's office is launching a major investigation into whether or not 120 truckloads of asphalt milling were, in fact, stolen from the city.

Acting on a story that appeared in the Aug. 22 edition of the Reporter, City Council members John Accardo and Barbara Geracitano requested the probe, and District Attorney Matthew Murphy said an investigation appears warranted.

He has assigned a top investigator, Allan Brooks, to the case. Brooks said he hopes to work in conjunction with the Niagara Falls Police Department in looking into the matter, a prospect that pleases some top brass in the department.

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

Brooks said the investigation is in its initial stages.

"We're trying right now to establish a liaison with the city police so we can go at this together," he said.

An assistant city Streets Department foreman, Willie Santiago, took a 30-day unpaid leave of absence after officials learned that the milling, valued at $12,000, had gone missing. Council members said they were originally led to believe Santiago was suspended, but documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act -- and signed off on by Public Works Director Paul Colangelo and Director of Personnel Paul Dziama -- show Santiago was permitted to take the voluntary leave instead.

The asphalt milling, normally used by the city to surface unimproved alleyways and parking lots, or sold to individuals and businesses, wound up instead in a parking lot adjacent to IDS Lakes Pipe Supply Corp. on Hyde Park Boulevard and in the parking lot of National Vacuum Corp. on Packard Road.

In an interview with the Niagara Gazette following the Reporter's initial coverage of the incident, City Administrator Al Joseph said the case had been blown out of proportion, and that only a few truckloads of millings were involved.

But the Reporter has in its possession a series of photographs taken on Aug. 3 at the Hyde Park location clearly showing numerous loads dumped at various spots around the lot, which is owned by local contractor Armand Cerrone. Normally, a truckload of the material sells for around $100, sources agreed.

"We'll see how people's stories change once they're called upon to give depositions under oath," Geracitano said. "This thing has been covered up from the beginning."

In their letter to Murphy, Accardo and Geracitano made no bones about what they thought happened with the material. The letter, also sent to Mayor Irene Elia, is notated "Re: Theft of city property" at the top and points out that the theft of $12,000 worth of material would constitute a felony.

Exactly how 120 truckloads of material could disappear without top officials in the Department of Public Works noticing is something Geracitano said she finds troubling.

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

Additionally, Geracitano charged, assistant city Corporation Counsel Tom O'Donnell refused her request to draft a formal letter to Murphy asking for the investigation.

"It's pretty clear to me that the administration doesn't want this episode looked into," she said. "I had to write the letter myself."

Any investigation will begin with Santiago, who reportedly told city officials he was unaware that the milling had been sold or used in the past, and that he thought he was saving the city money by getting rid of the material.

"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.

"Why would you give away something you could sell?" the source added.

For his part, Santiago has spent his time off work relaxing, and has been frequently spotted golfing at the Hyde Park Golf Course and eating lunch in The Greens restaurant there.