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Editorial: Baby steps at the Community Action Organization

L. Nathan Hare, CEO of Community Action Organization of Western New York, has the right idea when he says the organization will be “more open.” That’s not an especially high bar to clear considering the covert way the organization has conducted some of its business in the past few months, but it’s a start.

One way for Hare to demonstrate his sincerity would be to stop ducking the media. He has declined interview requests from The Buffalo News over the past five weeks as the newspaper reported on conflicts at the agency between him and its board of directors.

Hare has sent letters to the paper, as well as to agency employees, challenging the version of events told in The News’ stories, but has not met with reporters to give his side. That’s a mistake.

The CAO’s board voted to fire Hare in October, citing concerns about his performance and handling of agency finances, but he remained in the six-figure job. A lawyer for the agency, Adam W. Perry, who is a confidant of Mayor Byron W. Brown, wrote to the board soon after that Hare’s firing was improper and did not occur.

The board has says it hired a forensic accountant to audit the agency’s books. That work was terminated when the board members were ousted. Hare, in his recent letter to employees, says the forensic audit “never started because no auditor was ever hired,” but that’s slicing it thin. A former board treasurer disputes his contention.

In January, many of the volunteer directors who voted to terminate Hare were removed from the board. Perry wrote a report to the board questioning the legality of the appointments of the ousted board members.
Hare disputes some details about his conflicts with the directors, though in several cases the ousted board members have documentation backing up their version of events.

When the four former directors sent notice they were planning to demand reinstatement at a CAO meeting on March 4, three armed security guards were posted at the door to keep them out. Members of the public and news media were also denied entry. That’s not a sign of innocence.

Despite the millions of dollars a year it receives in government funding, CAO operates as a nonprofit and is not legally required to open its meetings to the public. Hare says the meetings will stay closed, but audio of the proceedings will be available in an online stream. That’s a halfway measure that seems to say, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”

What is Hare concealing from the public? Sending out letters assuring everyone that all is well isn’t good enough.

The CAO of Western New York was created during President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in the 1960s. It runs a number of important programs for the needy, has hundreds of employees and spends more than $50 million a year, most of it from the federal government. Hare and his new board may direct how much of that money is spent, but it’s not theirs – it’s money from taxpayers. Keeping the public at arm’s length is not acceptable.

The CAO mess isn’t going to be sorted out by issuing press releases; independent investigators are needed. The agency is being scrutinized or investigated by the federal Office of Head Start, the state Attorney General’s Office, Erie County Comptroller’s Office and New York Department of State. But who will provide the comprehensive report?

Attorney General Letitia James, who vowed during her campaign for office to keep an eye on nonprofit groups, is especially well-equipped to break through the cloud of suspicion hanging over the agency and get the public some answers. That should be her goal.

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