Question: Should it be legal for an agency that spends millions of public dollars to keep financial secrets from the public, even to the point of posting armed guards to ward off pesky questioners?
Plainly, it should not.
Unfortunately, it is.
That needs to change and the example of Community Action Organization of Western New York provides an object lesson for members of Congress who have both an interest and an influence in the matter. So might New York Attorney General Letitia James, whose office has authority over nonprofit agencies.
CAO of Western New York has been acting suspiciously for several weeks. Previous board members had voted to fire the executive director, L. Nathan Hare, only to have their decision mysteriously reversed by CAO’s attorney, Adam Perry, a lawyer from Hodgson Russ and an ally of Mayor Byron W. Brown. Then several of the board members were, themselves, dismissed, halting the investigation by a forensic accountant they had hired. But why?
It gets worse. CAO, which has spent tens of millions of federal tax dollars, posted armed guards at its most recent meeting to keep out anyone it didn’t want inside, including former board members and reporters. Why? What are they hiding that requires an implied threat of violence?
Taxpayers shouldn’t have to put up with this, as the federal legislation covering activities of such organizations makes clear. The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 says the community actions organizations shall “provide for reasonable public access to … books and records of the agency or other agencies engaged in program activities or operations involving the use of authority or funds for which it is responsible … ”
The unfortunate weakness is that the wording leaves open to interpretation what is reasonable. It is, however, abundantly clear that hiring armed guards after a forensic accountant is fired doesn’t qualify as reasonable.
Although the money passes through Albany, New York’s freedom of information and open government laws aren’t in play. This is, most immediately, a matter for the inspectors general of the federal agencies that oversee CAO. As Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, observed, their interest will be piqued by the organization’s suspicious maneuverings.
But Congress should be interested, as well. CAO’s furtive cloaking of its practices seems to be technically legal and, thus, demonstrates that the governing law is insufficient in cases where leaders are more committed to secrecy than they are to public accountability. That’s an issue that should resonate with conservatives and liberals, alike. Congress needs to toughen this law.
Given Washington’s wretched dysfunction, it’s hard to have much confidence that it will act anytime soon. Fortunately the state attorney general may also have a role. James’ office has an entire division devoted to charities and nonprofits. It needs to take a keen interest in the suspicious, paranoid operations of a publicly funded agency that uses firearms to keep the public at bay.