LAKE GEORGE — A Saratoga County man who serves as director of Lake George Watershed Coalition was arrested Thursday on three felony charges for allegedly stealing nearly $70,000 while working on a coalition project.
David J. Decker, 67, of Burnt Hills, was charged after a months-long investigation by the Warren County Sheriff’s Office that began after questions were raised last year by the Warren County Treasurer’s Office about hundreds of thousands of dollars in delayed state reimbursement in numerous Lake George area public works projects.
The charges allege he diverted $69,156 from a federal grant to his own bank account, falsifying paperwork to indicate the money was paid to a landscape contractor. The funds were to be used for the man-made wetland at the former Gaslight Village amusement park in Lake George.
Warren County Sheriff Bud York said the Sheriff’s Office investigation was continuing with the assistance of the Warren County District Attorney’s Office and additional charges were expected.
“We think there might be considerably more money involved and it may involve other municipalities,” York said.
Decker was accompanied by lawyer Joseph Brennan and arraigned in Lake George Town Court before he was freed on $5,000 cash bail. Phone messages for Decker and Brennan were not immediately returned Thursday afternoon.
The police investigation began when Queensbury resident Travis Whitehead, a government watchdog, made a complaint to the Sheriff’s Office after learning of Swan’s office’s concerns about non-payment of grants.
Whitehead believed he found paperwork and possible financial irregularities through Freedom of Information Law requests, with documents also allegedly showing that tens of thousands of dollars was funneled into a fake materials supply company that Decker is accused of establishing.
Decker, an engineer who formerly worked for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, has run the coalition since 2001, helping guide the finances of projects to keep invasive species out of the lake and the transformation of the former Gaslight Village amusement park into Charles Wood Park.
He has worked closely with town boards in Queensbury, Lake George and Bolton and village of Lake George and regional environmental groups as he guided dozens of grant applications to help pay for the projects.
When county Treasurer Michael Swan raised questions about the project reimbursement issues last spring, Decker told The Post-Star that the issues stemmed from a move by the state to change documentation rules for reimbursement in the types of projects he oversaw.
“We understand the rules now, and going forward it should be simple,” he told the paper last March.
Bolton Supervisor Ronald Conover, chairman of the Warren County Board of Supervisors and a member of the coalition, said he was “stunned” to hear of the charges. He said the coalition planned a review of the projects, and he had concern about the ongoing projects that Decker was overseeing.
The county is a part-owner of the Charles Wood Park.
Lake George Mayor Robert Blais, who is also a member of the coalition, said investigators from the Sheriff’s Office came to Decker’s office in Lake George village hall on Wednesday with a search warrant to seize his computer and some of his files.
Blais he was “totally surprised” and “shocked” by the arrest. He said Decker was hired to run the coalition by the state secretary of state and had worked tirelessly for the coalition over the years.
Blais said he spoke with Decker after his arrest on Thursday. Decker told him he faced one charge, he said.
“He said they just don’t understand the way the coalition works,” Blais said.
Blais said the coalition’s work was “very complicated” with multiple municipalities and state agencies involved on dozens of projects.
“We’ve never had any problems with Dave. He has done a lot of work for us pro bono, spent countless hours working for nothing on these projects,” the mayor said. “But if he’s done something wrong, it won’t be tolerated.”
Told that Decker explained the charges as a mixup, sheriff’s Lt. Steve Stockdale — who oversaw the investigation — replied, “There is no mixup.”
Decker is due back in Lake George Town Court on March 30. The weightiest charge, second-degree grand larceny, is punishable by up to 15 years in state prison.