Town officials say they began to notice a scarcity of 55-gallon drums around the highway garage in the waning days of Harry Beninati’s term as highway superintendent.
Then after Beninati left office in January, some of Wright’s highway workers reported that the one-term superintendent had told them to stop logging their fuel usage nine months earlier. The tidbit of information seemed to coincide with town records, which showed the Highway Department spending far more on fuel than in past years.
“It just didn’t match up,” said Bill Goblet, supervisor of the small Schoharie County town.
Town officials and state police believe Beninati was pumping thousands of gallons of municipally purchased fuel for his own consumption. State police arrested the former superintendent last week, following a three-month investigation that also involved the Schoharie County District Attorney’s Office.
In total, investigators believe Beninati may have taken 8,060 gallons of diesel fuel from the town of Wright. The fuel represents the amount that couldn’t be accounted for after highway workers stopped recording logs in March, according to police.
Beninati, 54, of Picket Hill Road in Berne, was charged with a felony count of falsifying business records Thursday in connection with the alleged theft. He was also charged with misdemeanor counts of official misconduct and petty larceny after he turned himself in to authorities Thursday, police said.
Beninati was issued an appearance ticket and appeared in Wright Town Court last week. Contacted at his home Tuesday, Beninati declined to comment.
His attorney, Trey Smith of Troy, didn’t return calls for comment Tuesday.
Goblet believes Beninati was filling an auxiliary tank on a town vehicle, which could hold about 100 gallons of fuel. He said the superintendent then brought the vehicle to his home, where he would pump the fuel into the drums he had collected.
“He took every 55-gallon drum he could get his hands on,” Goblet said.
Goblet wasn’t sure the exact value of the fuel Beninati allegedly stole from the town. He said the town pays a reduced tax-free rate on diesel fuel but is still charged upward of $3 per gallon.
“It was a lot of money,” he said.
And it’s money the town could use as it wends through the budgeting process. Goblet said any increase in costs is difficult for the town to handle now that its budgets must fall beneath the state’s 2 percent tax cap.
“It didn’t do us any good for sure,” he said of the alleged theft. “It really makes it hard for us to stay under the cap.”
Beninati, a Democrat, defeated incumbent Bill Bentley for the superintendent position in November 2010. But the following year, Republican Jim McLean soundly defeated him to land the post.
Beninati’s arrest comes five years after Wright’s town clerk was accused of accounting irregularities in her office. Marilyn Wetsel was charged with a misdemeanor count of official misconduct after a town-hired auditor’s report found inadequate bookkeeping and funds not properly accounted for.
After an investigation into the irregularities, authorities determined that the accounting of fishing and hunting licenses was off, in addition to the tickets used for the town’s transfer station. Wetsel resigned her post, pleaded guilty to the misconduct and was ordered to pay $3,500 in restitution.