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Former Buffalo arts council leader rejects label of embezzeler

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By Joyce Kryszak

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wbfo/local-wbfo-905466.mp3

Buffalo, NY – An attorney for the former executive director of the Buffalo and Erie County Arts Council said his client used the council's money inappropriately but did not steal.

Click the audio player above to hear Joyce Kryszak's full story now or use your podcasting software to download it to your computer or iPod.

This week, long-time arts advocate Celeste Lawson pleaded guilty to third degree grand larceny and to charges of repeatedly failing to file state income taxes. The Erie County prosecutor said she stole more than $25,000 on the council's credit card to pay for her casino gambling.

But her attorney John Nucherino said this is not a true case of embezzlement.

Nucherino said Lawson's methods of receiving reimbursements for council expenses were inappropriate, but not larcenous.

Nucherino added that Lawson does not admit to having any problem with gambling. She faces up to seven years in state prison when sentenced in October. Nucherino said he hopes the judge will show leniency when presented with all the facts.

But Erie County District Attorney Frank Sedita says what Nucherino is presenting is spin. He said Lawson embezzeled a significant amount of money.

However, both sides agree that the plea deal was negotiated cordially between Lawson, the arts council and chief investigative prosecutor John Doscher.

Lawson's arrest followed her exit as 13-year director of the arts council. An earlier state audit found she was responsible for mismanagement of the council's finances. WBFO theatre critic Anthony Chase said the arts community will survive the Lawson scandal. But he said not unscathed.

The case follows a stream of bad news for the local arts community. CEPA gallery executive director Lawrence Brose resigned early this year after being arrested on charges of child pornography.