By Matt Gryta
The Buffalo News
BUFFALO, N.Y. — Gerard J. Whittington, the longtime treasurer of the Aurora-Colden Fire District, began serving a one- to three-year prison term Monday for the nearly $370,000 authorities say he embezzled over the past eight years to finance his vehicle repair business.
State Supreme Court Justice Russell P. Buscaglia rejected what he said were numerous letters he received on Whittington's behalf seeking leniency.
Before Whittington, 67, operator of Emergency Equipment Service in the Town of Boston, was taken from court in handcuffs shortly after noon Monday, he told the judge: "I take full responsibility for my actions, and I feel bad for the faith and trust that I betrayed."
Leonard Berkowitz, Whittington's lawyer, pleaded with the judge to spare his client incarceration, stressing that he had already repaid the fire district $274,989 and intends to fully repay the remaining $94,331.40 once he is released from prison.
Buscaglia said he rejected pleas for leniency because even though there was some evidence Whittington had initially repaid the fire district some taxpayer money he embezzled, after a while he stopped paying it back and yet continued to violate the "public trust."
Berkowitz told the judge if Whittington and his family had the funds to fully repay the fire district, they would do it, but "he just doesn't have it" at the moment.
The lawyer said Whittington "acknowledges his stupidity" for using fire district funds because his business was in trouble but said he always has intended to make full restitution.
Whittington pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree grand larceny Nov. 29 for the embezzlement scheme. Those were the highest charges he would have faced at trial.
He also was forced to sign a confession of judgment legally obligating him to make full restitution for the funds he stole.
Whittington had been treasurer of the fire district for three decades until he was fired last June.
John C. Doscher, chief of Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III's Special Investigations Bureau, said Whittington is expected to begin making monthly restitution payments of at least $1,600 directly to the fire district, once he is released from state prison.
Whittington had been free without bail until Monday.
He had been facing a prison term of up to seven years on his pretrial plea in the case.
The prosecutors said the matter was referred to the District Attorney's Office last year by the State Comptroller's Office after a state audit.
The audit disclosed that for at least the past eight years Whittington was writing unauthorized fire district checks to himself and abusing the district's credit card account to cover his company's financial setbacks, the prosecutors said.
The fire district oversees the West Falls Volunteer Fire Company and includes part of the Town of Aurora and a portion of Colden.
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