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W. Seneca paying for suits tied to Lazzara ; Ex-AmeriCorps leader disputes town's claims

Mark P. Lazzara's leadership of the West Seneca Youth Bureau and AmeriCorps programs resulted in lawsuits, political squabbles and a critical state audit released in September.

It also cost the town $131,811 in legal fees and to settle lawsuits brought against it by at least four of Lazzara's co-workers who accused him of wrongdoing, according to documents obtained by The Buffalo News.

The town spent more than $68,000 on attorney costs and more than $63,000 on settlements with four of the five employees.

"Look at the amount of money we've paid to these employees," Councilwoman Sheila M. Meegan said. "Serious dollars, because of how they were treated."

The suits alleged that:

*Lazzara discriminated against women in language and hiring practices.

*An Iraq War veteran was stripped of his title upon returning from battle.

*Lazzara, as a town employee, refused to pay for benefits for two former employees.

The financial relationship between the town and its AmeriCorps programs caused the town to lose more than $400,000, according to a critical state audit released in September.

Lazzara, who disputed the audit, said the lawsuits were politically motivated and didn't paint an accurate picture of the work environment during his time as a town employee, which ended in January 2010.

"I don't think they have any merit," Lazzara told The News. "When you spend $60,000 settling cases, you might want to try some We helped thousands of West Senecans. At the end of the day, we added a value to the town."

A separation agreement between the town and its AmeriCorps programs was drawn in March. A new nonprofit, WNY AmeriCorps, was created in South Buffalo. The agreement stipulated the town was owed $1.88 million, with nearly $900,000 of that due from AmeriCorps and the rest from outside grants, to be repaid over the next five years.

The town is pursuing a lawsuit against AmeriCorps because it has not paid a $400,000 lump sum payment that was due June 1.

WNY AmeriCorps officials say they are waiting for state grants to trickle in so they can use their general fund to pay the debt. They have paid $96,000 of the debt.

Linda L. Boldt, who served as office manager of the town Youth Bureau from 1992 to 2007 and also served in the offices of the town's attorney, comptroller and Recreation Department, filed a complaint against Lazzara in 2007 with the state Human Rights Division.

She said she began to notice "a pattern and practice of discrimination against female employees" and told Lazzara she no longer wanted to interview females for town positions.

"On most occasions, he laughed," she wrote in the complaint.

Boldt also alleged that a hostile work environment was created that included her removal from e-mail lists and the changing of locks.

The Human Rights Division stated it "found that there was probable cause to believe that [the town] had engaged in unlawful discrimination."

In its settlement, the town paid Boldt $23,500. It spent more than $18,000 in legal costs, according to the documents.

Lazzara said his relationship with Boldt soured when he "caught" her using a town credit card to pay nearly $1,000 for a vacation. Boldt said she accidentally used the wrong card and reimbursed the town. Records supplied by Lazzara show a personal check from Boldt to the town one month after the transaction.

Boldt filed a second complaint against the town in 2009 relating to a transfer to another town department. She withdrew the complaint that year on the understanding she would be credited with sick days she used "while recovering from the stressful time it took to get back to work again." Town records show she was credited with 86 sick days.

Boldt declined to comment on the state complaints but described a work environment in which Lazzara went from being a "good boss [who] really cared about what he did" to "a really hard person to work for."

"It was not a discriminatory environment," Lazzara said. "However, it was a little tight. We had six people in a very small office, so I think that may have made it a little difficult."

After Boldt filed her initial complaint, four more were filed against the town relating to Lazzara in the next 15 months: one in State Supreme Court, one with the Human Rights Division and two federal suits.

In June 2008, Daniel Frontera, who served as deputy director and federal grants manager from 1998 to 2004, filed a federal complaint against the town, the Youth Bureau and Lazzara.

Frontera, who was deployed to Iraq in 2004, alleged that upon his return in 2005, he was demoted and stripped of his deputy director title. Frontera also alleged that Lazzara refused to pay his unused vacation, personal and sick days.

Lazzara said that soon after Frontera's deployment, his title was eliminated as part of a "shift in priorities," explaining that titles often changed and that Lazzara raised money to fund Frontera's position. He said he tried finding Frontera a new position.

Frontera was awarded $20,500 by the town in a settlement agreement. The town also spent more than $19,500 in legal fees on the case, which Frontera declined to comment on.

James R. Lawson, the town's youth director who developed youth programming and special events from 2001 to 2008, filed suit against the town in State Supreme Court in December 2008 after he was fired. He said Lazzara offered to pay him his vacation time and flex time for 2007 and 2008, but not his sick time. When Lawson amended the agreement to include the sick time, Lazzara withdrew the offer altogether, Lawson alleged and Lazzara acknowledged.

As part of Lawson's settlement, the town paid him nearly $7,000. It also spent more than $7,800 on legal fees. Lawson declined to comment.

Paulette Krakowski served as artistic director of the Burchfield Nature & Art Center from 2003 to 2007, when she said she got a constructive discharge. Lazzara said she quit the job.

Krakowski filed a human rights complaint against the town in August 2007 alleging gender discrimination by Lazzara. The state found there was "no probable cause" to support the claim.

Krakowski then filed a federal suit against the town in November 2008, with allegations including gender and age discrimination and retaliation.

The town and Krakowski reached a settlement in January 2010. Krakowski was paid $12,500, and the town spent $12,474 on legal fees. Lazzara declined to comment about the lawsuit or settlement.

News Staff Reporter Mary B. Pasciak contributed to this report.

e-mail: cspecht@buffnews.com

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