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Higgins urges transparency as CAO says public isn't welcome

Community Action Organization of Western New York should "change course and embrace transparency" or face increased federal oversight, Rep. Brian Higgins said Tuesday, the day after the anti-poverty agency hired armed guards to bar the public from its board meeting in Buffalo.

In a written statement, the Buffalo Democrat noted he has helped deliver tens of millions of dollars to help the nonprofit CAO provide essential services to thousands of people.

But he said he was troubled to learn of the internal board struggles that were triggered when a group of directors tried to fire the longtime CEO L. Nathan Hare and hire a forensic accountant to examine the books. The directors were then dismissed by a CAO lawyer who is a confidante to Mayor Byron W. Brown.

Hare never left his job. And the accountant's inquiry never materialized.

The four banished directors intended to demand reinstatement Monday evening, when the CAO board met. CAO's website assured that "the public is always welcome to attend." But the security guards stopped the four at the door and made them stand outside in Monday's bitter cold.

The public had never been turned away from CAO board meetings in the past, said Jennifer Shank, one of the four ousted directors.

"What have they got to hide?" she said. "We have always welcomed the public to our meetings. I've been there 16 years, and we've never excluded anybody."

Opening the meetings to the public was CAO's longstanding practice, although it was not a policy, Shank said.

CAO is not required to hold its meetings in public, but would be in the group's best interest, said Daniel Borochoff, president of CharityWatch, a national watchdog group.

CAO receives more than $35 million a year from the government, most of it federal money for its Head Start programs.

"They are dealing with the public's money," Borochoff said. "They have an obligation to operate in the public interest and demonstrate they are being transparent. Otherwise, it gives the impression there's a cover-up."

Higgins called CAO's decision to close its meeting just as troubling as the internal struggles.

"CAO’s management and board must understand," he said, "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."

Rep. Brian Higgins. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

He mentioned the potential for scrutiny from inspectors general of the federal agencies financing CAO operations.

"It is my hope that internal board disputes and questions about the agency's commitment to public transparency will not endanger future access to the funding critical to the residents of Western New York,” Higgins said.

Current CAO directors did not immediately respond to the congressman's statement. However, CAO's website was changed Tuesday to make clear the general public is not welcome at its board meetings. CAO now says citizens may attend by invitation only.

"Persons who are not members of the CAO Board, agency regulators or staff of the CAO may attend if invited by the board," said the new statement on the website.

In a separate statement, current CAO directors said: "These meetings have never been open to the public. They have always been restricted to board members, invited staff and invited guests." A staff member, LaDonna Huff, then told The News that the statement welcoming the public had been a "writer's error." In an apparent reference to the four directors, Huff said "CAO does not invite individuals to meetings who intend to disrupt Board or agency functions."

CAO, a nonprofit agency created by federal legislation in 1964, is not required to follow New York's Open Meetings Law, the state Committee on Open Government has said in an advisory.

The mayor said he was not aware prior to Monday's CAO board meeting that security guards would be posted to bar the public from entering.

"I certainly like transparency, but I'm not involved in the operation of this organization," Brown said.

Other elected officials, including those who serve on the CAO board, were unwilling to comment publicly about CAO preventing the public from attending the board meeting Monday. Common Council Member Ulysees O. Wingo Sr. and Erie County Legislator Barbara Miller-Williams – who are among the new CAO board members added as the four longtime directors were expelled – did not respond to requests for comment. Both Wingo and Miller-Williams are close to the mayor, and Miller-Williams has said she hopes for his support as she runs for city comptroller.

Similarly, Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, whom the mayor recently endorsed for re-election, chose Tuesday to stay out of the brouhaha. "It's not a county matter," his spokesman said.

However, county government has helped sponsor various CAO functions over the years and provided the agency with more than $1 million since 2004, according to the county comptroller's staff. Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw sent CAO a letter Tuesday indicating his staff might examine the use of county tax dollars over the years.

CAO's lawyer, Adam W. Perry of the Hodgson Russ law firm, did not return a telephone message left Tuesday. It was Perry who in January sent letters to directors Shank, Melissa R.H. Brown, Jenine Dunn and Doris Cummings-Ford telling them, for unspecified reasons, that they were no longer CAO board members.

The four had cast votes to terminate Hare, the longtime CEO, because they felt he had denied them important financial information and mishandled some important grants. But both the mayor and Perry intervened to keep him on the payroll.

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