| Former Town of Niagara Supervisor Steve Richards stands in the town park he built.
The legal ordeal of former Town of Niagara Supervisor Steven C. Richards, 61, is over. . Richards took a plea on a 23-count indictment over the alleged theft of $1,240.37 in goods and services from the town.
Richards pleaded guilty to a single count of official misconduct, a Class A Amisdemeanor, before State Supreme Court Justice Christopher J. Burns in Niagara County Court on Monday. Sentencing is scheduled for July 14th.
The misdemeanor carries a penalty of up to one year in prison. However, as part of the plea deal, the judge agreed to reduce Richards' sentence to three years on probation.
Richards also agreed to retire from his position as town supervisor as part of the deal. Richards submitted a formal letter of resignation to Town Clerk Sylvia Virtuoso on Friday, May 2.
State Atty. Gen. Eric Schneiderman said Richards will make "full restitution" and Richards did, writing a check payable to the town in the amount of $1,240.37.
"Steven Richards has admitted that he misused his position and used town resources to benefit himself personally, abusing both his office and the trust placed in him by the public," Schneiderman said. "He has vacated his office and [he] submitted his retirement papers last week. [This will ensure] that hard working Niagara families will no longer have to pay for their town supervisor's personal use of town property and resources."
In the end, Richards admitted to only one of 10 alleged thefts. He admitted that he used Town of Niagara workers on town time and Town of Niagara vehicles to drive to Lancaster to pick up and deliver a catch basin to his personal place of business, Richards Motor Service.
"I used my authority as Town of Niagara supervisor to obtain benefits for myself," Richards admitted in court, reading from a prepared statement.
Jury selection in the trial had been set for this week. More than 30 witnesses had been subpoenaed to testify for the state.
A source familiar with the case told the Reporter that Justice Burns informed Richards' defense team that, in the event of his conviction, it is likely Richards would be sentenced to serve time in prison.
The original 28-count indictment alleged that, from March, 2002, until March, 2012, Richards committed 10 illegal activities involving the theft of goods or services from the Town of Niagara. Among these were that he illegally possessed a shotgun and a generator that belonged to the town police department; he directed town employees on town time to pick up and deliver property to Richards Automotive, and to clean a clogged drain at his business. It is also alleged that Richards stole town paint, drain cleaner and a drill. In the aggregate, he was alleged to have stolen an average $103 per year over a dozen years.
Town councilman Dan Sklarski, who serves as deputy supervisor, has assumed the duties of supervisor until the town board elects an interim supervisor who will serve the remainder of this year.
A special election will be held in the fall to elect someone to serve the remainder of Richards's term through 2015.
An election for a full four-year term will be held in November 2015.
Councilman Robert Clark, who some say initiated the investigation of Richards, has expressed a desire to run for supervisor.
As early as 2012, before Richards was charged, Clark said he believed there is a "possibility" that Richards would "step down," creating the need to hold a special election. Clark, a Democrat, has been a council member since 2006. He has frequently been at odds with Richards, a Republican, who served 19 years as town supervisor.
Clark said he had nothing to do with the initial investigation, other than to respond to investigators' questions.
"I've decided to run," Clark told the Reporter in 2012, "whether next year or three years from now. Our town needs a new direction."
The Town of Niagara's population is 8,300 with Democrats enjoying a solid voter majority.
Richards, who owns Richards Automotive, succeeded his father, Calvin, both professionally and politically. Calvin started the family automotive business in 1957 and also once served as town supervisor.
As supervisor Steve Richards was paid $35,960 per year. His wife works as a janitor at Niagara-Wheatfield School.
During his term as supervisor, Richards brought Wegmans Supermarket to town, secured free garbage disposal for the townspeople by cutting a deal with Allied Waste, negotiated deals with the Fashion Outlet Mall to pay full assessment of town taxes, plus an extra $200,000 per year, and helped negotiate the relicensing settlement with NYPA, getting the town more money than the city of Niagara Falls.
With that money, Richards built a town park and preserved the last remaining old growth forest in town. The NYPA money pays for the maintenance of the park.
For 19 years, Richards declined all campaign contributions and campaigned using only his own money.
He previously told the Reporter, "I am innocent of all these allegations. And I will go to the death defending the Richards name. I have proof of everything. And I can tell you this: I will never say I did something I did not do. I'll never retire under a cloud. I will defend my name - to the death."
Richards also told the Reporter he has spent more than $60,000 in legal fees.