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Hearing on ouster of Mascia centers on his intent in using N-word

When Joseph A. Mascia repeatedly used the N-word to describe some of Buffalo’s top African-American leaders along with one white official, it wasn’t hate speech, his attorney is arguing; it was political speech.

Attorneys representing the city in its effort to remove Mascia from his seat on the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority board, on the other hand, assert that Mascia’s comments, made in a private conversation recorded by a former friend, were nothing short of racism.

Mascia said Monday that he has repeatedly apologized for using the N-word and that he probably should have referred to the politicians as “crooks” instead.

It was all part of the second day of a courtroom hearing on whether Mascia should be allowed to keep his tenant-elected position as a BMHA commissioner, which he has held since 2006. He was suspended by Mayor Byron W. Brown in August, a few weeks after the secretly recorded conversation was made public.

The BMHA’s Ethics Committee later recommended that Mascia be permanently removed from the board, which has two elected commissioners and five members appointed by the mayor. Brown appointed attorney Ann E. Evanko as hearing officer for the case.

As Mascia took the stand for the second time, the city’s attorney, Shauna L. Strom, confronted him with a copy of the Housing Authority’s ethics policy and the oath that every commissioner takes. Mascia said the code, which applies to all employees, is intended as a guideline for how staff treats tenants.

Strom then asked point-blank, “Are you a racist?”

“No,” Mascia said.

The denial led to some back and forth on whether he ever admitted to being a racist, with Strom apparently referring to a radio interview in which Mascia said everyone has racist thoughts. Still, Mascia said, “After 70 years on Earth, I’d say no, I’m not a racist.”

The ethics complaint hinges on a recording made in March by Paul Christopher, whom Mascia says he has known for 35 years. Christopher secretly used his phone to record their conversation while the two were traveling by car between Buffalo and Albany. The recording was leaked to the media four months later.

Mascia has acknowledged that he is the man heard criticizing the way some BMHA commissioners were appointed and then singling out BMHA Chairman Michael A. Seaman for specific complaints. Under further questioning by Christopher on the recording, Mascia extends his criticism to a string of African-American leaders, including the mayor, and repeatedly uses the N-word and other derogatory terms about them and Seaman, who is white.

Mascia’s attorney, Steven M. Cohen, first addressed the nature of the comments and Mascia’s response when they became public.

“You refer to your comments as vile?” Cohen asked.

“Yes,” Mascia said.

“And you expressed regret for those comments?”

“Yes,” Mascia said.

“And you’ve devoted your entire career and life to fighting for minorities?”

“Yes,” Mascia testified.

Cohen then questioned whether Mascia thought the purpose of the Housing Authority’s ethics policy “is to apply to your private conduct in a car ride with a friend?

“No,” Mascia said.

Cohen suggested that Mascia was using the “inappropriate” word about people “not because of their skin color, but because they are corrupt people.” Mascia explained that he was upset over the lack of transparency in Housing Authority finances. His anger toward the leaders, he said, was rooted in fiduciary, not racial, issues.

However, Strom continued to push Mascia, asking whether he ever used racial slurs when speaking with his black friends. Mascia said he did not recall ever doing that. “Are you saying you use racial slurs so often you can’t remember?” Strom shot back, but Mascia didn’t bite. “I’ve said repeatedly it is not common language for me to use,” he said.

Strom again questioned Mascia on why he used the N-word instead of something less inflammatory.

“Maybe I should have just used the word ‘crooks,’ ” Mascia said.

The hearing continues Tuesday.