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Housing Authority chief is brought to tears at hearing over Mascia slurs

The hearing into whether Joseph A. Mascia should retain his seat on the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority board is proving to be nearly as contentious as the remarks that brought everyone to the courtroom in the first place.

Taking the stand Tuesday morning, BMHA Executive Director Dawn Sanders-Garrett was brought to tears while reviewing the secretly recorded insults of her that Mascia made last March when a friend recorded their conversation. In the recording, Mascia makes profligate use of the N-word while criticizing Sanders-Garrett, Mayor Byron W. Brown and other African-American leaders.

The mayor suspended Mascia from the board in August, after the recording was released to the media, and the BMHA’s Ethics Committee recommended that Mascia be permanently removed. The mayor appointed Ann E. Evanko to hear the matter.

Sanders-Garrett became so upset Tuesday that Evanko called a brief recess to allow her to regain her composure.

Mascia’s attorney, Steven M. Cohen, was quick to move past the tears. He began his cross-examination by asking whether Sanders-Garrett had seen any prior examples of racist behavior by Mascia in the eight years since she has held her post.

This was the first situation of its kind, Sanders-Garrett said, but in further testimony, she said Mascia’s statements had painted the entire Housing Authority with “the brush of racism.”

Cohen then inquired about other “ethical challenges” the BMHA may have faced in the past regarding money, luxury vehicles and patronage appointments, and suggested that Sanders-Garrett was a biased witness because she was also a political supporter of the mayor.

The city’s attorneys, Joel C. Moore and Shauna L. Strom, vigorously objected while Evanko chastised Cohen for his behavior.

“You have made off-the-cuff remarks that have gotten into the record, that are unacceptable and disparaging,” Evanko said before ordering all the attorneys to respect one another.

Cohen went on to accuse Evanko of being one-sided in her rulings on objections and pointed out that, with Mascia’s term set to expire in June, he would have little time to appeal what he expects will be her decision before the matter becomes moot.

Evanko coolly responded that she “respectfully disagreed” with Cohen’s characterization of the hearings and pointed out that they were delayed for months at Mascia’s request so Cohen could represent him.

When Sanders-Garrett returned to the stand, Cohen took another tack, trying to ask about times when Mascia may have cut her compensation package and suggesting that she could be motivated to want Mascia off the board for reasons beyond his racist remarks.

Even the legitimacy of her tears on the stand was questioned, as Cohen suggested that Sanders-Garrett has always been easily upset and that she has been known to break down in tears even during regular BMHA board meetings.

Cohen finally gave up, saying that if he wasn’t going to be allowed to get into allegations of corruption, political bias and other alleged ill-doings by BMHA leaders, “I have nothing further.”

The defense is scheduled to present its side Wednesday.