Allegheny River group concerned it was victim of alleged scam | TribLIVE.com
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Mary Ann Thomas

Boaters who can’t use locks on the upper reaches of the Allegheny River can count themselves among the alleged victims of what state prosecutors say was a scam.

The Allegheny River Development Corp. (ARDC), a Kittanning-based nonprofit, canceled the opening of locks 6 through 9 in Armstrong County this past weekend because there is little money left for the season, according to Brian Szep, acting president of ARDC.

The four locks are in South Buffalo (Clinton lock, No. 6), West Kittanning (No. 7), Boggs (Mosgrove lock, No. 8) and Madison Township (Rimer lock, No. 9).

The nonprofit has been waiting for a state grant check that it intended to use to help pay to keep the locks open to recreational boaters on summer weekends, according to Szep.

Szep is concerned the money will never come. A man the nonprofit paid to help secure the grant money is accused of stealing more than $100,000 from grant-seeking companies and groups.

According to a criminal complaint filed by the state Attorney General’s office, Joseph Kuklis, 48, of Upper St. Clair was paid by the groups to lobby for government grants that never materialized. Prosecutors claim Kuklis, who operates the consulting firm Wellington Strategies based in Station Square, forged documents that made it appear his clients received grants when no such grants were approved.

Kuklis and his attorney, Michael Finley of the Allegheny County Public Defender’s office, did not return calls for comment.

ARDC paid Kuklis an undisclosed amount over the past year and a half to find grants to pay to keep the four locks open most summer weekends, including holidays, Szep said.

ARDC, through a first-of-its-kind agreement, pays the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to keep the locks open. The Corps closed those locks to pleasure boaters in 2012 because of the lack of commercial vessels using the facilities, which determines funding for their operations.

The nonprofit was waiting for grants in excess of $150,000, according to Szep.

Szep learned about the charges against Kuklis last week. ARDC has since turned over information about its dealings with Kuklis to Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office, he said.

ARDC’s budget for 2019 lock operations was about $166,000, paid for by grants and donations, former ARDC President Linda Hemmes said earlier this year. Hemmes resigned from ARDC last week. She did not return requests for comment.

The good news is ARDC is still in the black, Szep said. However, they have limited funds to get through the boating season.

ARDC expects later this week to announce its lockage schedule for the remainder of the year, he said. The hope is to be open for at least Labor Day weekend, he said.

But they will have to scramble to find money for next year’s boating season.

Next year’s budget could range from $166,000 to about $190,000, Szep said.

Pat Fabian, chairman of Armstrong County Commissioners, said the county will help work on the funding issues with legislators at the state and federal levels.

“I applaud ARDC’s efforts to keep these locks open for recreational boaters,” Fabian said.

“If these locks, 6 through 9, are not open, that is devastating for our river towns of Freeport, Ford City and Kittanning and businesses along the river like marinas and Freeport Terminals,” he said.

It’s hard to attract and keep commerce along the river when locks aren’t open and operating hours can change year to year, Fabian added.

Kuklis’ preliminary hearing was continued from Aug. 27 to Sept. 17 before Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Kim Berkeley.

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