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GOP mayoral candidate admits N.Y. sued him over unpaid college bills

Sergio R. Rodriguez, the Republican candidate for mayor, was sued by New York State in 2008 for nonpayment of college expenses.

Rodriguez paid the overdue bill last year, just months before he announced his candidacy for mayor, and now admits he made a mistake in not addressing the issue sooner.

“I dropped the ball,” he said. “I neglected to pay.”

Rodriguez’s legal fight with the state began when he failed to pay $4,800 in overdue expenses at Empire State College. The suit was filed in Albany County by then-Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo, the current governor.

The state sued him in March of 2008, and more than four years passed before Rodriguez satisfied the $6,365 judgment against him. The judgment included interest and court costs.

“It’s basically a student loan I neglected to pay,” he said.

Rodriguez said the dispute is rooted in two Empire State College courses he enrolled in but did not attend. He admits that he failed to withdraw from the courses and that he was ultimately responsible for the unpaid expenses.

“I’m not disputing that,” he said. “I’m responsible.”

Court papers connected with the State Supreme Court suit indicate that the Attorney General’s Office looked into Rodriguez’s military status as part of the case, but it’s not clear why.

A spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office said he could not comment because of privacy policies.

Rodriguez, a Marine veteran, said he was not aware of any link between his military service and the 2008 lawsuit regarding his enrollment at Empire State College.

“I have absolutely no idea where that came from,” he said of the court papers regarding his military status. “In fact, this is the first time I’ve seen this.”

The papers indicate that the state sought clarification of whether Rodriguez was “an active duty member of the armed forces of the United States” and that it later verified he was not. The case also incudes a document from the Department of Defense confirming that Rodriguez was not on active duty at the time.

Rodriguez, who was endorsed last week by the City of Buffalo Republican Committee, has made his military record a centerpiece of his campaign for mayor.

He enlisted in the Marines in 1998 and served until 2003, rising to the rank of sergeant. He went on to become deputy director of the Erie County Veterans Service Agency and later joined Medaille College as coordinator of the Office of Veterans and Military Affairs.

Rodriguez will face the winner of the Democratic mayoral primary between incumbent Byron W. Brown and challenger Bernard A. Tolbert.

His candidacy is seen by both Democrats and Republicans as a long shot because of a 7-to-1 Democratic advantage in voter registration. A Republican has not won election as mayor in Buffalo since 1961.