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Review notes overpayment to ex-director

Former Niagara Power Coalition director Mark Zito and his fiancee were overpaid by $4,000, according to a review of the group's finances.

He also was illegally voted a raise in executive session, the coalition's attorneys told the board Thursday at a hastily convened meeting.

The coalition should ask Zito to return $17,180, reflecting $1,000 annual overpayments "along with illegally authorized salary increases" in 2004 and 2005, attorney R.J. Stapell wrote in a letter to the board.

"These dollars need to come back in and be accounted for," Stapell said. What the coalition did with the money after that is a separate issue, he said.

The coalition could end up repaying him the money after a review, Stapell added.

Zito said in an interview that the discrepancies were insignificant. "They got over $1 billion and we're arguing about $3,000? I consider that insulting."

At Thursday's meeting, coalition board members praised Zito's work in helping the coalition reach a $1 billion settlement with the New York Power Authority over relicensing the Niagara Power Project.

They also promised to get to the bottom of the mess. "This is public dollars, and we want to rectify the situation," said coalition President William Ross.

There was no mention Thursday of ongoing efforts by some coalition members to pay Zito an additional $120,000 in bonus retroactive salary.

Several members attributed some of the findings to misunderstandings.

Niagara Falls Mayor Vince Anello was one of several members to assert that the September 2004 vote upping Zito's pay was not actually taken in executive session. The secretary made a mistake, Anello said, and the pay raise was not illegal.

"We all know better than to vote on something like that in executive session," said Town of Niagara Supervisor Steve Richards.

The financial review also raised questions about a $23,410 check issued in 2003 to a woman named Susan Ross. Coalition attorneys on Thursday recommended asking for the $23,410 back, since "there is no contractual document to support such payment."

"Who is Susan Ross?" asked Lewiston Supervisor Fred Newlin, and no one answered. William Ross said she wasn't his relative. The review also discovered that when Zito was paid $23,410 in 2002, an Internal Revenue Service Form 1099 was issued in that amount to Susan Ross. In 2003, the reverse: Zito got the check, and Ross got the 1099.

Reached Thursday night, Zito said that Susan Ross was his fiancee when her name appeared on the 2002 documents, and remains his fiancee today. She's also the Niagara Falls School District's director of after-school services, he said.

Zito, a former Local 91 laborer who said he lives on a disability pension, is a member of the Niagara Falls School Board and the Niagara County Independence Party chairman. Ross helped him when he was unable to type or do research because of ongoing illnesses, Zito said.

Zito said he learned of the financial review's questions Thursday night from a reporter. Though William Ross said Zito had to supply a document to complete the financial review, Zito denied it.

Zito said he was "crippled" and "a guy who is very limited in his abilities," while the coalition board approved every financial move he made.

The coalition's Ross said that the group would have another special meeting soon to figure out how to handle the situation.

e-mail: agalarneau@buffnews.com

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