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Urban League’s complaints about report by Mychajliw deserve a detailed response

The Buffalo Urban League is severely distressed over a report issued by Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw and its questions are significant enough that they deserve a detailed response from Mychajliw. That may be coming, given that the Urban League has now sued the comptroller, demanding a retraction.

Leaders of the Urban League charge that the comptroller has damaged the institution’s reputation through inflammatory public statements that don’t jibe with the report he issued last fall on its charges to the county.

In December, Mychajliw described the conclusions of a report on the Buffalo Urban League’s $1 million contract with the county this way: “At best, it’s gross mismanagement. At worst, it’s outright fraud.” The Urban League says it was simply an error that it has since corrected.

Based on a review of the record – it was not an actual audit – the Comptroller’s Office concluded the Urban League overcharged the county about $40,000. In its own review, conducted with the Department of Social Services, the Urban League reported that it owed the county $30,576 because of a failure to follow procedures in some areas.

Even that isn’t acceptable, but there’s a chasm that separates error from fraud and even though Mychajliw carefully couched his criticism, he left the impression that fraud was a possibility. Leaders of the Urban League said they believe they would have uncovered the error themselves during their annual financial reconciliation. They also charge that Mychajliw failed to follow proper accounting standards and they challenged the claims made by whistleblowers, whose reports led to the comptroller’s review.

Mychajliw stands by his office’s report and attacked the Urban League for spending its money on a lawsuit instead of directing those dollars toward its mission of helping those in need. That’s certainly a plausible interpretation of the league’s response, but the other is that the Urban League is correct and that a flawed report by the Comptroller’s Office, together with overheated comments by Mychajliw, have damaged the Urban League’s ability to raise the funds that it needs to pursue that important mission. If that is the case, then it may be worth some of its money to secure its reputation for honesty and protect its interests over the long haul.

This will play out, and it’s difficult to know exactly where the line is that divides fact from hyperbole. But it is not irrelevant that league officials, including Executive Director Brenda McDuffie, are passionate in their insistence that nothing even like fraud occurred and that the Urban League has gone public with specific criticisms. What is more, filing a lawsuit is a risky maneuver if the purpose is to protect your standing but your cause is wrong.

It does seem a shame for the league to have to spend this money, though. It would be good for the people who depend on it, and for Mychajliw, if they can sort this out between them and agree on a public statement that both can support. Given the issues and the personalities, though, that seems radically unlikely.