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Suspended Lewis trail coordinator testifies at hearing

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LOWVILLE — An administrative hearing was held Wednesday for Lewis County’s suspended recreational trail coordinator, Robert C. Diehl, 43, following allegations of third-degree grand larceny, first-degree offering a false instrument for filing and official misconduct.

After consideration, which he said “won’t take long,” retired state Supreme Court Justice John S. Parker will make a recommendation to the Board of Legislators on whether to reinstate or terminate Mr. Diehl.

For more than five hours, witnesses testified to the events leading up to Mr. Diehl’s suspension in mid-November.

The chain of events began in May when Mr. Diehl ordered gravel from V.S. Virkler & Sons for personal use at his town of Martinsburg home.

Mr. Diehl admitted to receiving 14 truckloads of material and, later, the bill at his residence. He said he planned to pay the bill, but was delayed partly because of the unexpected price of $3,500.

“It was almost $2,000 more than I expected,” he said.

He chose Virkler to deliver the stone for the base of a barn he was building because of its proximity to his property. Just eight miles down the road, he said he thought its price would be the cheapest.

Though he estimated he had weekly conversations with the staff at Virkler about county orders, he never contacted it about his personal account.

Instead, he said, he decided to wait to pay the bill until his barn was complete. When late bills arrived at his residence, he placed them in a file to pay later without opening them, he said.

“I knew the payment was late. I didn’t need to read it. I knew I had enough money to pay it when the barn was finished,” he said.

Karen Reynolds, office manager at Virkler, said she sent bills to the Diehl residence after initially confirming the order was for personal use.

She said bills were sent in May and August. In September, a bill was generated that included a finance charge for late payment, but that bill then was voided as one of the owners did not want to charge the late fee. It was not clear whether a bill was sent in September.

About Oct. 8, another bill was sent, this time with a notation that a finance charge would follow.

In addition to that bill, Ms. Reynolds said, unanswered calls were made to Mr. Diehl’s residence and the same bill was sent to Mr. Diehl at his county email address.

Mr. Diehl could not recall receiving the email, but said he gets about 75 work-related emails a day. A late bill, he said, normally would be printed out immediately and placed in a pile for payment.

“I didn’t expect a personal bill at work. If it comes in a Virkler envelope, it goes in the Virkler pile to get paid,” he said, adding the county orders “tens of thousands of dollars in materials” from Virkler in the course of a year.

This bill was an email attachment without the customary Virkler letterhead. It was addressed to Mr. Diehl at his personal residence. Nevertheless, it was submitted to the county for payment.

It also did not have the necessary weigh slips attached, which later came into question when both legislative Clerk Teresa K. Clark and Deputy Clerk Deanna Smith testified.

Mrs. Clark said only a department head, such as Mr. Diehl, may submit a purchase order to the county for payment.

According to Mrs. Clark, the deputy made an error in not catching the mistake in Mr. Diehl’s submission for payment about Oct. 25. The purchase order was approved despite its lack of weigh slips and its delivery address to Mr. Diehl’s residence.

It was submitted along with two other bills, both with Virkler letterheads and weigh slips and addressed to the county.

It then was passed on to the county’s Ways and Means Committee, composed of legislators Richard C. Lucas, R-Barnes Corners, William J. Burke, R-West Lowville, and Jerry H. King, R-West Leyden.

Mr. Lucas said his committee approved the payment, which appears on a list of claims but does not come with attached receipts. The request was then passed on to the Board of Legislators, which also approved the payment at its Nov. 6 meeting.

When Ms. Reynolds received a check for payment, she alerted one of the Virkler owners, as well as fellow employee and Board of Legislators Chairman Jack T. Bush, R-Brantingham, of the overpayment. After checking Mr. Diehl’s account, it appeared the overage was a similar amount.

Mr. Bush contacted County Manager David H. Pendergast and County Attorney Richard J. Graham and the check was not cashed.

During testimony, Mr. Pendergast was questioned by Mr. Graham and Michael F. Young, who along with attorney Gary W. Miles is representing Mr. Diehl.

Mr. Pendergast conducted an investigation on his part and consulted with Mr. Graham.

“At that time we made the decision to call the sheriff,” he said.

On the afternoon of Nov. 14, Mr. Diehl was called for a meeting by Mr. Pendergast.

When entering the room, he was met by Mr. Graham, Mr. Pendergast, Sheriff Michael P. Carpinelli and senior Investigator Dale W. Roberts.

Mr. Diehl said in the course of his daily work, it would not be uncommon to meet with the men, so he was not alarmed.

When he was accused of falsely filing a purchase order, Mr. Pendergast said, “His initial reaction was he didn’t know how it got submitted and was upset.”

Mr. Diehl asked to go to his office to get his records and was accompanied by Mr. Roberts.

“It’s in there. It’s a horrible mistake,” Mr. Pendergast recalled Mr. Diehl saying when he returned with identical paperwork.

Mr. Diehl said he then was notified he could resign from his position or face an administrative hearing. He said he chose the hearing because he knew it was just a mistake, though it was possible he could be arrested after the hearing.

During the hearing, Mr. Graham denied having the authority to make such a decision and suggested the investigator made the statement, which later proved false.

The following day Mr. Diehl paid his past bill with a check at Virkler and received a receipt. Ms. Reynolds said Mr. Diehl did not mention the mistake, but said he was there to pay a late bill.

His payment, Ms. Reynolds said, “ was not applied.” She said the county later called and directed her to cash the first check she had received as “this was under way.”

Because Mr. Diehl’s position is under Civil Service Law, his suspension must be paid until the results of the hearing are known.

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