BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) - A parking meter mechanic pleaded guilty Tuesday to stealing at least $15,000 in quarters from city meters over about five years and said a co-worker had showed him how to do it.
The co-worker, suspected of stealing $210,000 since 2003, is expected to plead guilty Thursday.
"It was me being foolish and stupid," Lawrence Charles, 40, told a federal judge before pleading guilty to theft. "I needed some extra money. I was shown how to get it from another individual in the department and I began doing it. Now I'm suffering for it."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Maura O'Donnell said Charles rigged about 10 parking meters so that the quarters would collect in the upper part of the meter, which he could access, rather than fall through to the lower collection canister. He also obtained a key that gave him unauthorized access to the lower chamber and would replace full canisters with empty ones, O'Donnell said.
Charles would stash the stolen quarters in envelopes and paper coffee cups inside his city truck until dropping them off at home during extended lunch hours and at the end of his shift, O'Donnell said. Charles would spend much of his workday stealing from meters throughout the city and did little legitimate work, investigators said.
"The defendant systematically stole money from City of Buffalo parking meters he was entrusted to repair," the prosecutor said.
Charles worked for the city for 17 years and was a meter mechanic from 2007 through December 2011, when the thefts took place, authorities said.
Charles and co-worker James Bagarozzo came under scrutiny last year after their boss, parking Commissioner Kevin Helfer, noticed a big discrepancy in the amount of money the city's new computerized pay stations were bringing in compared with the older quarter-fed parking meters. Helfer found that 128 computerized stations covering 1,300 parking spots took in an average of $100,000 per month, while 1,200 older meters at the same number of spots brought in $15,000 to $20,000 a month.
Helfer hired a private investigator who videotaped and used GPS surveillance on suspected employees. Charles was seen stealing an estimated $3,363 to $4,712 in quarters over a 32-day period, averaging $105 to $147 per day, court documents show.
Bagarozzo is estimated to have stolen $1,000 a week from 2003 to the end of 2011, according to the filings. Bagarozzo admitted to investigators that he'd intentionally damaged the metal guides in 70 to 75 meters so that the coins didn't drop into the collection canister, according to charging documents. Investigators found $40,000 in cash in the ceiling of Bagarozzo's bedroom, $3,000 in quarters and $4,100 in cash in a canvas bag.
City spokesman Michael DeGeorge said Charles and Bagarozzo were suspended without pay following their arrests in December and will be fired after their convictions.
Bagarozzo's attorney didn't immediately respond to a telephone message Tuesday. O'Donnell wrote in court documents that he is expected to plead guilty Thursday.
Tuesday's plea agreement specifies a prison sentence of six to 12 months and requires Charles to pay $15,000 in restitution.
Charles "may have thought he was just robbing quarters," U.S. Attorney William Hochul said, "but in fact he was stealing the public's trust."
Both men were immediately suspended without pay following their arrests. Charles has now been formally dismissed.
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