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Power Coalition to request state audit Chairman seeks an 'unbiased review'

The Niagara Power Coalition's chairman says he will ask for a thorough audit of his organization's books by the state's top auditor, State Comptroller Alan Hevesi.

"This is public money and we need an unbiased review of what the heck happened," said William Ross.

After months of requests, the Power Coalition in January authorized the first limited review of its finances. After getting the report last week, "We immediately and rightly went public with all the facts we discovered that involved potentially illegal meetings, overpayments and very serious allegations that involve the coalition's former executive director, Mark Zito," said Ross.

The review released last week revealed that Zito got $3,000 more than board votes authorized between 2001 and 2005. It said Zito had his checks cut by verbally requesting them from James Ingrasci, the Niagara Falls School District employee who handled the coalition's checkbook.

Zito, a former Local 91 laborer who lives on a disability pension, is a longtime member of the Niagara Falls School Board and the Niagara County Independence Party chairman. For most of its history, the Niagara Power Coalition met in Niagara Falls School District offices, and members agreed Niagara Falls School District employees would handle its finances.

It did not start requiring two signatures on checks until October 2005.

The financial report also noted that in 2002, Zito was issued a check and the corresponding IRS Form 1099 was improperly issued to a woman named Susan Ross. In 2003, the reverse: the check went to Ross, and the 1099 was issued to Zito.

Susan Ross is Zito's fiancee and also a Niagara Falls School District employee. She makes $58,154 as director of after-school programs.

Zito said there was nothing improper with the 1099s being issued that way, and said his fiancee Ross helped him execute his duties as director. "There was never a check that was not authorized by the board," he said last week.

Zito did not return a call for comment late Friday.

Coalition lawyer R.J. Stapell of Harris Beach recommended that Zito be asked to return $17,180, and his fiancee return $23,410. The lawyers did not say that Zito or his fiancee committed a crime, and said the coalition might decide to return the money to Zito once the matter was cleared up.

When the report was unveiled last week, William Ross told the certified public accountant who performed the review that he did not need to be at the meeting. Newlin objected and tried to convene a meeting with the accountant on Thursday. Coalition attorneys said the meeting would be illegal, and coalition members called it off.

Ross said in a statement that he would convene a special meeting of the coalition board next week.

e-mail: agalarneau@buffnews.com

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