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Group cancels meeting on financial review

Niagara Power Coalition lawyers urged members to cancel a special meeting Thursday after they learned it would involve a financial review that concluded former coalition director Mark Zito had received unauthorized salary increases and overpayments.

Coalition members decided at the last minute to cancel the meeting in Lewiston Town Hall but had plenty to say about the review.

Lewiston Supervisor Fred Newlin called the meeting earlier this week so members could talk with auditors who had prepared the financial review. He said he was "pretty shocked" by the report and concerned that lawyers wanted the meeting canceled.

Zito and his fiancee, Susan Ross, were overpaid by $4,000, according to the review. Zito also was illegally voted a raise in executive session, the coalition's attorneys told the board last week. 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.

Newlin said the auditors did not attend a meeting last week where the financial report was released.

"This report begs a lot of questions," Newlin said. "I plan to take this documentation and turn it over to the New York State comptroller and New York State attorney general. It needs to be investigated."

Members were notified Thursday by Stapell, of the Harris Beach Agency, less than an hour before the planned special meeting that the gathering would violate coalition bylaws. They also learned Stapell told auditors from Brown and Co. they are not authorized to attend such a meeting and there should be no discussions regarding their report, according to coalition members.

Newlin said any member is allowed to call a meeting according to the bylaws, and that Chairman William Ross exercises the privilege freely. Ross, who had left town Wednesday night, was unable to comment or make any change in the cancellation.

Members from the Town of Lewiston and Lewiston-Porter School District continued with an unofficial meeting.

Lewiston-Porter School Board President David S. Schaubert said the discrepancies found in the first report should prompt a full-blown audit.

"Mr. Zito has made some claims that are patently false," Newlin said. "There was no verification that payments were authorized to [Susan] Ross, Mr. Zito's fiancee. She was never endorsed by the board."

"We need to put this all to bed so we can move forward," Schaubert said. "Obstructionism is going on and the next word we'll hear is coverup." He added that, despite financial questions, the Niagara Power Coalition has been successful as an organization.

The coalition has arranged $1 billion in payments and low-cost power from the New York Power Authority over the next 50 years as part of the federal relicensing of the Niagara Power Project. Zito was point man for that effort.

"In the end they got the deal. It's been one of the few inter-political organizations that has been successful over the past 12 years," Schaubert said.

Zito was unavailable to comment Thursday but said following the release of the report last week that he considered accusations against him "insulting" considering the settlement he helped broker.

The next regular meeting of the Niagara Power Coalition has been set for April 5.

e-mail: nfischer@buffnews.com

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