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Armed guards block public from attending CAO meeting

The Community Action Organization of Western New York, which spends millions of dollars a year in public money, invites the public to its meetings.

Except when it doesn't.

CAO stationed three armed security guards at its doors Monday to keep the public out.

Four CAO directors who had been banished from the nonprofit's board – after trying to fire the agency's CEO – had given notice that they were intending to demand reinstatement at that night's meeting. The media was expected to attend, too.

So one of the agency's decision-makers – the armed guards refused to identify him or her – issued a list of those who were to be admitted. The list appeared to be reserved for the current board of directors and few others.

The four banished directors were still banished.

"They are evading federal law," one of the four, Jenine Dunn, said to the guards. She was the board's president until January, when a report written by an agency lawyer and confidante to Mayor Byron W. Brown questioned the legality of her appointment to the board.

Scandals and misdeeds are not uncommon at the  Community Action Organization of Western New York, which in March posted armed guards to bar the public from a directors' meeting.(Mark Mulville/News file photo)

Three other former directors - who were also removed in January after the CAO board accepted the report by CAO lawyer Adam W. Perry questioning their appointments – were left out in the cold Monday as well. They were Jennifer Shank, Doris Cummings-Ford and Melissa R.H. Brown.

Admitted to the meeting were newly appointed board members connected to the mayor, like former Common Councilmember Demone A. Smith, for example, and current Councilmember Ulysees O. Wingo Sr. Also ignoring appeals from those stranded outside was a new member, the Rev. Craig Pridgen, son of Council President Darius Pridgen, and Michael E. Johnson, the board's current president who serves as regional director for the office of State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

Back in October, the four banished directors were among a cluster of board members who decided it was time for CAO's longtime CEO, L. Nathan Hare – one of the mayor's friends – to go. They complained that Hare had kept them in the dark about important financial information and believed he had mishandled some vital grants.

A board majority voted to fire Hare from a job that had paid him about $112,000 in 2016, the last year that his salary information is publicly available. At the same time, the directors hired a forensic accountant to examine the books and shed more light on the agency's finances.

Hare, however, never lost his job.

The day after Hare learned he was being fired, the mayor met over coffee with Dunn to ask the board to reconsider, former directors told The News. Dunn refused, the former directors said. But Perry, CAO's attorney, was at work nullifying the vote.

Perry told the directors they had not provided adequate notice of the special meeting held to fire Hare. According to Perry, the vote never happened. Hare was back at work the next business day.

Hare's critics on the board were determined to then take a second vote, without repeating the technical issues Perry cited. But before that could happen, Perry sent four of them letters saying he had found technical issues with the way those directors had been appointed to the board in the first place. He told them they no longer were directors.

"You must refrain from representing yourself as a member of the CAO board," he wrote to them. The letter was on the stationery of his law firm, Hodgson Russ, not Community Action Organization of Western New York.

Those letters arrived in January. Since then, CAO has replaced those four and filled other vacancies with people loyal to the mayor, who also gets to appoint one of the CAO directors.

While CAO states on its website that the public is invited to attend its meetings, it is not a government entity subject to the Open Meetings Law. In an advisory opinion issued two decades ago, New York's Committee on Open Government said anti-poverty agencies like the CAO, created by federal legislation in 1964, should keep the public informed and comply with reasonable requests for financial information. But the advisory opinion does not say such agencies must open their meetings.

Former Community Action Organization board member Doris Cummings-Ford talks with reporters after being denied access to the CAO board meeting in Buffalo on Monday. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

The four were not the only ones barred at the door. Buffalo restaurateur Mark Supples said he wanted to attend out of curiosity about an agency that spends more than $50 million a year, most of it from various levels of government.

"No one cares," Supples said at one point, "about $51 million in public money?"

The four banished directors say they are not giving up. They had an attorney with them Monday, Jennifer L. Friedman of Schroder, Joseph and Associates.

"I was shocked to find that the board meeting was closed to members of the public," Friedman said. "It is listed as open to the public on the CAO website. The CAO receives millions of dollars of federal taxpayer funding. Members of the board of directors who requested an audit were also improperly barred from the meeting ...

"This lack of transparency is deeply concerning," she said.

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