Originally published on October 19, 2014, at NationofChange.org
Four employees from Buffalo’s Department of Parking Enforcement have been convicted of stealing over $300,000 in coins from the city’s parking meters over the course of almost a decade. The FBI began investigating the city employees after Parking Commissioner Kevin Helfer noticed Buffalo’s new computerized pay stations were collecting nearly ten times the amount of money brought in from the old quarter-fed parking meters. The employees have been sentenced to prison and ordered to pay back all of the money that prosecutors were able to prove they stole.
In 2011, Parking Commissioner Helfer realized the city’s new computerized stations were bringing in roughly $100,000 per month, while the older meters were only collecting $15,000 to $20,000 per month. About 128 computerized stations covering approximately 1,300 parking spots collected $100,000 each month, while roughly 1,200 older parking meters only brought in up to $20,000 per month.
On August 16, 2011, Buffalo Police discovered over $1,300 in coins hidden inside Franklin Lopez’s work vehicle. Employed part time as a coin collector for Buffalo’s Department of Parking Enforcement between 2002 and 2011, Lopez was responsible for collecting money deposited into parking meters. Instead of depositing the coins into the city treasury, Lopez made numerous cash deposits and cash payments for various items. Between November 2002 and August 2011, Lopez stole over $69,000 from Buffalo’s parking meters. On Thursday, Lopez was sentenced to 12 months in prison and ordered to pay $69,000 in restitution.
In December 2011, parking meter mechanics James Bagarozzo and Lawrence Charles were arrested for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from Buffalo’s parking meters. Beginning in July 2003, Bagarozzo began intentionally damaging over 75 parking meters instead of repairing them. By breaking the machines, he could collect the quarters on top with his hands instead of allowing them to drop in the collection canister. Bagarozzo spent the first half of every workday stealing from 70 to 75 malfunctioning meters.
According to bank tellers, Bagarozzo deposited between $3,000 and $5,000 in stolen quarters each week. At the time of his arrest, investigators found $40,000 in cash in the ceiling of Bagarozzo’s bedroom, $4,100 in a dresser, and $3,000 worth of quarters hidden in bags and boxes around the house. From July 2003 to December 2011, Bagarozzo stole over $210,000 from Buffalo’s parking meters.
“What may have begun as a theft of nickels and dimes, in the end was the equivalent of a major bank heist,” said U.S. Attorney William Hochul, Jr. “This defendant admitted stealing almost a quarter million dollars which would have gone to the residents of Buffalo. That the defendant operated day in and day out over eight years, committed his crimes while on City time using City vehicles, and utilized his mechanic skills to alter parking meters and make his thefts easier, rank this as one of the more egregious breaches of honesty, ethics, and the public trust Buffalo has seen.”
Bagarozzo claimed he began stealing from the city in 2003 following a serious episode of Crohn’s disease that left him believing he did not have long to live. Blaming the disease and a severe gambling addiction for his crimes, Bagarozzo started stealing in order to build a nest egg for his family. On August 16, 2013, Bagarozzo was sentenced to 30 months in prison and ordered to pay $210,000 in restitution.
“With all its problems, the last thing the city of Buffalo needs is employees who don’t do what they’re paid to do,” U.S. District Judge Richard Arcara declared as he rejected a defense plea for home confinement or community service for Bagarozzo.
Beginning in April 2007, Lawrence Charles was also responsible for repairing defective parking meters but was not authorized to collect any money deposited into the machines. In 2011, a private investigator was hired to videotape and use GPS surveillance on the suspected parking meter mechanics. According to court documents, the investigator caught Charles stealing up to $147 worth of coins every day over a 32-day period. Arrested along with Bagarozzo, Charles pleaded guilty to stealing over $15,000 on September 4, 2012. Charles was sentenced to six months in prison and ordered to pay $15,000 in restitution.
Employed by the City of Buffalo for approximately ten years, Francis Tronolone worked as both a coin collector and a parking meter mechanic during this period. Responsible for collecting coins deposited into parking meters and repairing malfunctioning meters, Tronolone stole over $9,000 in coins from city parking meters and concealed them inside a cooler in the back of his vehicle. Some of the money that Tronolone stole came from parking meters that had been rigged by other parking meter mechanics. On August 27, he was sentenced to six months in prison and ordered to pay $9,000 in restitution.
“As we have stated previously, this office intends to prosecute any public official responsible for stealing money or breaching their public trust,” said U.S. Attorney Hochul. “This marks the fourth defendant who from a single government agency did just that.”
According to U.S. Census figures in 2007, Buffalo was the third largest impoverished city behind Detroit and Cleveland. During many of these parking meter thefts, 29.9% of the population in Buffalo was living in poverty in 2006. Plagued by factory closings and a rapidly declining population, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown devised a $100 million five-year plan to tear down 5,000 of the roughly 10,000 vacant houses in his city. According to the Justice Department, the amount of money proven stolen by the four convicted employees exceeded $300,000 that should have gone into the city treasury.