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Editorial: Investigate Community Action Organization

When Letitia James was running for state attorney general in 2018, she told The News’ editorial board that, if elected, she would use her investigative powers aggressively, including in cases of “nonprofits that a lot of elected officials are tied to … (those) can lead to a lot of information you can work with.”

Have we got a case for her.

Strange things have been happening at Community Action Organization of Western New York, a publicly funded agency that spends more than $50 million a year on helping the poor.

As detailed in investigative reports in The Buffalo News, the nonprofit’s board of directors lost confidence in the agency’s chief executive, L. Nathan Hare, and his handling of agency finances. The board sent him a letter in October saying he was fired, then hired a forensic accountant to examine the books.

are has friends in high places – City Hall, to be exact – and the next business day after his firing he was back on the job. Adam Perry, a lawyer from Hodgson Russ who is the CAO’s attorney, somehow made Hare’s dismissal go away, as if it never happened. That alone would make Perry’s skills the envy of many a political “fixer,” but he didn’t stop there. Perry also sent letters to some of the directors who tried to fire Hare, dismissing them from the board. Among them was former board president Jenine Dunn.

Hare has long been an ally of Mayor Byron W. Brown. Shortly after the board’s dismissal letter was sent, Brown invited Dunn to meet and discuss the firing. Dunn told the mayor the board would not reconsider, according to another board member, Jennifer Shank, who in January was also tossed off the board.

When Shank and other critics of the director were let go, the work of the forensic accountant also was halted. Does anybody else wonder what it would have turned up?

Perry, the lawyer, has represented the City of Buffalo in some high-profile cases. He is president of the mayor’s Fund to Advance Buffalo and has worked with Brown on several other civic projects.

The point of having a board of directors for any organization is for it to remain independent of the chief executive. Good governance requires the board to review the CEO’s performance, set his compensation and censure or terminate him if necessary.

The board’s letter dismissing Hare cited “continued deficiencies” in his performance. Outside auditors for CAO, Szymkowiak & Associates, earlier in 2018 told the board of 16 deficiencies in internal controls. The fact that the forensic accountant’s investigation of CAO records was halted should trigger alarm bells that can be heard all the way to Albany.

James is now attorney general and the events surrounding CAO and the un-firing of its director deserve scrutiny from her office.

The leader of a national watchdog group, Daniel Borochoff of CharityWatch, told The News that “there’s enough money involved that regulators would be interested in this.”

Community Action Organization has done important work since its creation some 50 years ago. It operates a Head Start program, for early childhood development and numerous other important projects. Hare is well-known and admired in the community, but his handling of financial matters was of enough concern to board members for them to conclude he had to go.

Hare and Perry both declined comment when contacted by The News. A spokesman for the mayor said, “No termination took place and the mayor has no comment on something that didn’t happen.” That was an evasion.

The fact is that the letter of termination exists and The News published a copy online. The truth behind how a politically connected lawyer was able to make Hare’s firing go away needs to be investigated and brought to light. And a new forensic accountant needs to get busy.

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