A former longtime University at Buffalo vice president and the former director of UB's Campus Living have admitted to stealing state funds for personal use. On Thursday morning, Dennis Black and Andrea Constantino both entered guilty pleas to State Supreme Court Justice John Michalski.
For nearly four decades, Black was a widely-recognized face in the University at Buffalo community. He pleaded guilty to Grand Larceny in the Second Degree and Offering a False Instrument for Filing in the First Degree. He admitted in court that over a nine-year period, he stole more than $330,000 in state funds for personal use, and filed improper claims to gain tax deductions.
"Mr. Black was one of the highest-paid public employees in Western New York, making almost $300,000, and yet he then on top of that took $300,000 from the university," said Erie County District Attorney John Flynn.
The expenses included purchases of tickets for James Taylor and Liza Minelli concerts, Broadway shows and New York Yankees games. Black also spent state money on staff parties at Buffalo Bisons games, personal dues and fees at the Buffalo Saturn Club, tickets and support to an arts festival in South Carolina, where he now resides, and air fare and lodging in several cities including Salt Lake City, to where he and his wife traveled to attend their son's wedding.
Black also admitted to using stolen state funds to make donations to or provide support for several charitable organizations, doing so in his name. This included $75,000 to the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, where prosecutors say he made pledges and purchased tickets and dinners for himself and others. Black was a former board member.
He also stolen state funds to to make donations or provide other forms of support to Christ the King Seminary, the American Heart Association, the Barksgiving campaign and the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County. Black chaired the latter's 2013-14 annual campaign.
"Mr. Black not only embarrassed the entire UB community ... he embarrassed this whole town," Flynn said.
Outside the courtroom, Black did not comment but his attorney, Brian Mahoney, said his client is sorry and is committed to making full restitution.
"Mr. Black remains hopeful that his 42 years of community service on behalf of the university will not be overshadowed by this error in judgement," Mahoney said.
Andrea Constantino appeared first before Justice Michalski and pleaded guilty to Grand Larceny in the Fourth Degree. According to prosecutors, Constantino used stolen state funds to purchase a treadmill for her home. She also used state funds, via her state credit card, to but four $300 gift cards from Fleet Feet Sports. She also used that credit card to purchase airfare and four nights in Kissimmee, Florida for a conference she claimed to attend but did not exist. She also used $8,000 in state funds to make a charitable donation to an organization affiliated with the Boston Marathon. That contribution, according to investigators, allowed her to enter the marathon itself.
Constantino faces up to four years in prison when she is sentenced December 6. She has agreed to pay $14,000 restitution to New York State. Her attorney told Judge Michalski that payment had already been placed in escrow.
University at Buffalo president Dr. Satish Tripathi issued a written statement explaining how the university learned about financial improprieties and brought them to the attention of legal authorities: "Today, the Erie County District Attorney’s Office held a press conference announcing that a former UB employee has pleaded guilty to a felony charge of grand larceny and another former UB employee has pleaded guilty to a felony charge of grand larceny and an additional felony charge of offering a false instrument for filing.
"This matter stems from a university audit conducted by UB’s Office of Internal Audit in April 2016. This audit was conducted at my direction due to concerns of financial mismanagement in the former University Life and Services organization.
"The UB audit uncovered a pattern of financial abuse, including the misappropriation of state funds in the former University Life and Services organization and the Faculty-Student Association. (The Faculty-Student Association is a separate, private, not-for-profit corporation affiliated with UB.)
"In July 2016, I, in consultation with the Office of General Counsel for SUNY, directed UB’s Office of Internal Audit to refer this matter to the New York State Office of the Inspector General. Concurrently, this matter was referred to the SUNY Fraud Committee.
"In July 2016, the Office of the Inspector General assumed responsibility for this investigation. Throughout the investigation, UB cooperated fully with the Office of the Inspector General, and UB will cooperate fully with the Office of the District Attorney.
"As soon as we uncovered the financial abuse, the University at Buffalo took swift and appropriate measures to tighten financial controls, including assigning authority for all financial decisions and transactions to the Vice President for Finance and Administration."
Black abruptly resigned from his position in July 2016, while Constantino suddenly quit her job last month.
Flynn explained that Black and Constantino had access to an account administered and funded by the Faculty Student Association, or FSA, a not-for-profit corporation that operates UB's book stores and food services. Black, according to Flynn, improperly steered payments by FSA into the account he could access, rather than a university account that is subject to state financial controls.
Deputy New York State Inspector General Jeffrey Hagen, who stood with Flynn at the DA's news conference, said his office is continuing its investigation.
"We're looking at the policies and the practices there to ensure this never happens again," Hagen said. "We're working closely with SUNY, with SUNY Central, to ensure a thorough investigation is done of this entire matter. That is continuing and will continue for some time."
Timothy Hoover, a partner at Hodgson Russ LLP, issued a written statement on behalf of the UB Faculty Student Association: "For more than 50 years, the independent, non-profit Faculty Student Association has provided superior food and auxiliary services to the University at Buffalo. Consistent with SUNY guidelines and at the request of current and past UB administrations, UBFSA annually transferred a portion of its revenues to UB for the university’s broader use, in light of diminishing state government support to UB. In particular, these funds helped defray expenditures in the operations of the university. UBFSA was surprised to learn that, despite a system of checks and balances, UB and UBFSA became victims of two former UB employees’ diversion of some of those transferred funds, resulting in a financial loss to UB.
“As a result, and after careful consideration, review, and full cooperation with UB, SUNY, state and Erie County officials, the UBFSA board and UB leadership implemented several significant financial accountability initiatives. These go above and beyond what SUNY and state regulators require of campus auxiliary organizations.
“First, a number of outside, independent directors joined the UBFSA’s governing board and helped staff a newly created audit committee; second, the board hired a new outside auditor that is performing an internal controls review and a top-to-bottom financial analysis; third, all revenues transferred from the UBFSA to UB are now verified to be in accounts overseen solely by the UB Office of Finance and Administration; and, fourth, the UBFSA’s board now includes seven UB administrative officers, including the UB controller.
“UBFSA and its employees are proud of the work they do, and the services they provide to UB and its students, faculty and staff. Their work will continue as UBFSA fulfills its mission to provide the highest-quality services to the UB community.”
Both Black and Constantino are free on their own recognizance until their respective sentence dates. Flynn was asked if he will pursue jail time for the defendants.
"I'm going to recommend jail for Mr. Black," he replied. "I haven't decided yet on Ms. Constantino."