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Attorneys square off at Mascia ouster hearing

Attorney Steven M. Cohen tried arguing Friday that Mayor Byron W. Brown doesn’t have the authority to oust Joseph A. Mascia from his tenant-elected seat on the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, that the city of Buffalo doesn’t have legal standing to present a case against the suspended BMHA commissioner, and that the hearing officer in the case was improperly assigned.

Cohen lost all those arguments on the first day of a hearing into whether Mascia, 70, should be removed as an authority commissioner. Cohen then tried to argue before Ann E. Evanko, a hearing officer overseeing the case, that the tape-recording in which Mascia is heard using the N-word in reference to some of Buffalo’s top African-American leaders should not be admitted into evidence.

The only way the recording should be admitted, Cohen argued, is if the entire tape-recording from the four-hour ride Mascia took with the person who secretly recorded him that day is admitted into evidence. Otherwise, Cohen argued, the snippets being heard have no context, and don’t give a true picture of what was being said and how Mascia was being manipulated into making certain statements.

Courts have consistently ruled that snippets of a full recording cannot be admitted into evidence, Cohen said.

Attorney Shauna Strom, representing the city, argued that Mascia has already acknowledged making the racist comments recorded on the tape, which, she noted, is the basis of the charges brought against him by the BMHA as well as the city.

The case against Mascia, she added, is a public hearing before a hearing officer – not a criminal case before a judge. The rules of a hearing are more lax, she argued.

Evanko ruled in the city’s favor, allowing the recording to be admitted, she said, because it is the same recording that the BMHA heard and is the basis of the charges the BMHA filed against Mascia.

Strom called Mascia to the stand as the city’s first witness.

The tape was played.

Mascia sat quietly. The first 10 minutes or so was a taped telephone conversation between Mascia and Terry Robinson, an African-American who has been friends with Mascia for years and has remained friends with Mascia throughout the controversy surrounding the suspended BMHA commissioner. Mascia talked about a whistleblower website he found. Once the two hung up, the recording captures Mascia and Paul Christopher, a one-time friend of Mascia’s who taped the conversation last March while the two were traveling between Buffalo and Albany.

They first talk about Mascia claiming some members of the BMHA were appointed improperly. Mascia then, in reference to BMHA Chairman Michael Seaman, says: “I’m going to take him down. I’m going to take them all down.”

Then, in response to questions by Christopher, Mascia refers to a string of African-American leaders using the N-word, and uses other derogatory words as well.

Among those he referred to using the N-word was Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, who he went on to criticize for supporting Catherine Collins over Robert Bennett for the Board of Regents. Collins is African-American; Bennett is white.

Mascia then says, in reference to African-Americans: “Once they get in power, forget it, they want it all.”

Strom, the city’s attorney, asked Mascia about his relationship with Peoples-Stokes. Mascia said he has no personal or professional relationship with the assemblywoman.

Strom then asked Mascia if the discussion on the tape was the first time he’s ever made these types of remarks.

“Yes,” Mascia responded.

The city’s next witness was Donna Brown, a former deputy mayor currently working for the Erie County Medical Center who was appointed by Mayor Brown (no relation) to serve as an appointed BMHA commissioner.

City attorneys played the tape again, this time for Donna Brown, who said the BMHA’s ethics panel felt Mascia’s comments violated authority policy to the extent that he should be removed from the board. She agreed.

Cohen attempted to chip away at her credibility while also building up Mascia, who has been a tenant-elected commissioner since 2006.

Cohen asked Commissioner Brown, who has been on the board for about three years, if she knows how many housing developments the BMHA operates. She didn’t know. Cohen said there are 29, and assured her that Mascia knows the number.

Cohen then asked Brown how many tenants live in Housing Authority developments. She estimated about 1,500. Cohen responded that the correct number is 12,200.

He also asked her to cite an example, outside of the recorded comments, of Mascia discriminating against anyone. She said she could not cite an example.

He continued with that line of questioning, asking her to cite an example, aside from the tape, backing up any of the allegations against Mascia. She did not name any.

The city’s next witness was Cedric W. Lowe, who lives in the Frederick Douglass Towers.

Lowe said he heard about Mascia’s comments through the media. “I didn’t like it,” Lowe said. “I didn’t like it at all.”

Lowe said he started a petition calling for Mascia’s removal.

Cohen responded by citing four specific instances when Mascia assisted people living in Frederick Douglass Towers, and asking Lowe if he was aware of them.

Lowe said he was not aware of any of the instances Cohen mentioned.

Mascia’s recorded comments were made public in July, while he was running for Common Council.

The BMHA requested his resignation in response to the comments, as did BMHA tenant groups.

When Mascia refused to step down, the BMHA ethics committee asked Mayor Brown to suspend Mascia and begin hearings to remove him from the board.

The hearing continues Monday.