Former Schoharie County town official cleared of theft charges

April 3, 2013
Updated 9:17 p.m.
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Harry Beninati
Harry Beninati

— Charges against a former Wright town highway superintendent were dropped Wednesday following a two-day investigation by a Schoharie County grand jury.

County Prosecutor Michael Breen presented a “no bill” to County Court Judge George R. Bartlett III, effectively dismissing charges that Harry Beninati was responsible for more than 8,000 gallons of diesel fuel officials couldn’t account for.

Beninati’s attorney, Trey Smith of Troy, issued a statement later Wednesday labeling the charges as based in “false innuendo from those with personal and political motives to defame him.”

State police announced the conclusion of a three-month investigation in October 2012 and charged Beninati with first-degree falsifying business records, a felony, and official misconduct and petty larceny, both misdemeanors. Police alleged Beninati had ordered town employees to “stop filling out fuel logs in order to conceal the larceny.”

Breen said Wednesday the grand jury’s investigation into the case was sealed and he was unable to comment on it. Beninati referred questions to his attorney, who issued a statement contending the whole case was a sham.

“Mr. Beninati had never faced criminal charges before. He is an honest man who served the town of Wright with integrity,” Smith said in the statement.

According to Smith, Beninati was allowed by town officials to use 200 gallons of diesel fuel in his personal truck to do town business in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene. The storm had torn up roads and flooded homes in 2011.

Though police at the time of the arrest said they were unable to account for 8,060 gallons of fuel, Smith in the statement said “unassailable documentary evidence,” in addition to testimony provided to the grand jury, showed the discrepancy in fuel usage was attributable to the extraordinary amount of fuel used in the storm’s aftermath.

Smith said the charges were damaging to Beninati both “personally and professionally.”

Beninati, 54, of Picket Hill Road, a Democrat, served a one-year term as highway superintendent in 2011 before losing a re-election bid to James McLean, a Democrat who ran on the Republican line.

McLean said later Wednesday he believes the town’s fuel is safe. He said he reinstituted the log, which town employees use to record fuel usage.

The town’s fuel is stored behind a locked gate at the municipal building, and the pump can be turned off from inside the municipal building.

McLean said he also added a light fixture in the vicinity of the fuel pumps.

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