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News files suit to get report on fired school official

The Buffalo News filed a lawsuit Monday in State Supreme Court seeking an investigator’s report about a fired Buffalo Public Schools administrator who oversaw the district’s $100 million grants budget.

The school district has refused to release the lengthy report about the assistant superintendent, Debbie Buckley, who was fired shortly after the School Board received the report.

The board has previously said the report was protected by attorney-client privilege because it was prepared by a law firm. After the lawsuit was filed late Monday afternoon, district officials couldn’t be reached to comment.

The News argues in the suit that much of the report should be public, citing an advisory opinion by the executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government. In his nine-page opinion, Robert J. Freeman said only the portion of the investigator’s report that “involves the learning and professional skills possessed only by an attorney” may be withheld.

The News is asking that the district either release the report in its entirety or submit it for a review to determine which portions may legally be withheld.

“That the district and the board hired an outside law firm to conduct an investigation, the accomplishment of which does not in any way appear to be dependent on a lawyer’s expertise, suggests that their true motive was to subvert – through the misuse of attorney-client privilege – public disclosure and transparency regarding the people’s business,” the News’ attorney, Joseph M. Finnerty of Hiscock & Barclay, wrote in papers filed with the court.

“The district and the School Board have refused to disclose the report, or the facts of the situation, choosing instead to paternalistically pat us on our collective heads, insisting we blindly trust them,” Finnerty wrote. “This is anathema to the idea of open government.”

Buckley was escorted out of her fourth-floor City Hall office on Sept. 1, 2011.

Six weeks after she was suspended, the School Board voted to hire the law firm of Bond Schoeneck & King to investigate her actions while overseeing the grants department.

Several sources have told The News that the inquiry focused on concerns about lease payments the district made for space owned by Buckley and a family member.

Sometime around June, the law firm submitted a voluminous report on Buckley. District officials made one copy of it available to board members to read in City Hall but declined to provide them copies.

On June 27, the board voted, 8-1, to fire Buckley. Board member Mary Ruth Kapsiak, representing the Central District, cast the only vote in opposition. “Bad things happen when the public’s business is conducted behind closed doors,” said Mike Connelly, editor of The News. “All of us have a right to know how taxpayer money is being spent – or misspent – and The News will always fight for the public’s right to know.”

The News’ suit named as respondents: Superintendent Pamela C. Brown; all nine members of the School Board; the school district; and Nathaniel Kuzma, general counsel to the school district.

In addition to release of the report, The News is asking that the district pay its attorneys’ fees.