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Editorial: CAO’s closed meeting, armed guards raise suspicions

Louis Brandeis, not yet a U.S. Supreme Court justice, in 1913 wrote in Harper’s Weekly that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”

The sentiment springs immediately to mind in the wake of Monday night’s meeting of the Community Action Organization of Western New York, where armed guards – paid with whose dollars? – were posted at the door to keep out the public and members of the news media.

When does disinfectant come in handy? When something rotten is afoot.

Four former CAO directors, who were pushed off the board after trying to fire the politically connected CEO, showed up for the meeting, where they intended to demand reinstatement. They were not on the approved “guest” list and were kept out.

That’s a pretty heavy-handed way to avoid difficult conversations, particularly for an agency that spends more than $50 million a year in public money.

L. Nathan Hare, a friend of Mayor Byron W. Brown, has been in charge at the CAO since 2002. In October, a group of board members decided Hare needed to go, saying he had held back important financial information and mishandled some important grants. They voted to fire Hare and hired a forensic accountant to examine the agency’s finances.

Former board members say the mayor and one of his cronies, lawyer Adam W. Perry of the Hodgson Russ firm, intervened. The next business day after the termination letter was issued, Hare was back at work.

Perry told the directors there were technical problems in their vote to fire the CEO. They planned a second vote, but Perry – the CAO’s attorney – sent them letters in January dismissing them from the board, saying they had been improperly elected. The work of the forensic accountant was halted.

Several of the former directors wanted answers at Monday night’s meeting. Instead, they were barred from entry. The CAO, as a nonprofit corporation, is not a government entity subject to the state Freedom of Information Law, nor is it legally required to open its meetings.

But in the opinion of Robert Freeman, executive director of New York’s Committee on Open Government, the anti-poverty agency should keep the public informed and comply with reasonable requests for financial information.

The CAO’s board is now populated with people loyal to Brown. It seems to be a fiefdom ruled by the mayor, but paid for mostly with federal tax dollars. Having guards to keep out reporters or other inconvenient questioners is a tactic more often associated with foreign dictators than anti-poverty agencies. It also raises an obvious question: What’s being hidden behind closed doors?

March 10 is the start of Sunshine Week, a yearly observance organized by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. It’s all about defending the public’s right to know. In addition to turning their clocks ahead this weekend, it might be a good time for the folks at City Hall and CAO headquarters to reacquaint themselves with the First Amendment.

We’ve suggested here before that State Attorney General Letitia James investigate the strong-arming of the CAO. There might well be a role for federal investigators.

CAO receives federal funding from multiple sources, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Each has an inspector general who could take an interest in the CAO’s books.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, released a statement to The News on Tuesday stating the CAO plays a vital role in fighting poverty in our region, through programs such as Head Start, and youth and senior services. He called the decision to close Monday’s meeting “troubling.”

“CAO’s management and board must understand the need to immediately change course and embrace transparency as they resolve their governance issues, and that anything short of full transparency will surely invite enhanced federal oversight,” Higgins said.

If the CAO’s leadership doesn’t lift the lid on its meetings and let the sunshine in, they could be in for some dark days ahead.

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