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Paladino removal hearing wraps up

Karen DeWitt
Buffalo school board member Carl Paladino testifies at the NY State Board of Education hearing about whether he should be removed from the board.

There was dramatic testimony Tuesday in the hearing on whether former Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino should be ousted from the Buffalo school board. Paladino took the stand, and apologized for racist comments he made last December regarding former President Barck Obama and Michelle Obama.

Paladino was contrite when he spoke of the written remarks made to a Buffalo arts newspaper on December 23, 2016. He said “there was no excuse” for even thinking the racially charged comments about the Obamas. The Buffalo businessman said he brought shame on his family, his teenaged daughter was harassed, and he also badly hurt his cause to reform the Buffalo school system. 

But Paladino grew feisty when he spoke about his anger toward other school board members; the superintendent of the Buffalo school district, Dr. Kriner Cash and the president of the teachers union, Phil Rumore; and what he said was their “scheming” that led to a “rigged” teacher contract that he Paladino believed would drain the districts reserves and plunge it further into debt.

The petition from several school board members to remove Paladino is not about the racist comments, but instead accuses him of knowingly violating his oath of office because he leaked to the media details of teacher contract negotiations, information that was discussed in a closed-door executive session of the board.

The attorney for the other school board members, Frank Miller, says he believes that through questioning of Paladino, he proved his case.

“I think we proved our case overwhelmingly that Carl Paladino violated his oath of office,” Miller said. “The best proof of that is his own testimony.”

Miller called Paladino’s justification for the leaks is laughable.

Paladino’s lawyer, former New York State Attorney General Dennis Vacco, says he believes his client effectively argued that there was a compelling reason to disclose the information -- the public’s right to learn what was in the teacher contract.

“I’m not conceding that he uttered confidential information,” Vacco said. “If it was confidential, that he did so with a definite good faith effort in serving the public’s interest.”

And Vacco has counter-charged that the executive sessions themselves were potentially conducted in an illegal manner.

Vacco has argued all along that the case isn’t really about leaking information about the teacher contracts to the media. He says Paladino is actually being condemned for his controversial comments, which the former attorney general admits were inappropriate.

“Some of the most compelling testimony we’ve heard here today from Carl is his remorse over the low and despicable comments that he made,” said Vacco.

The school board first drafted a resolution in late December that demanded Paladino resign over the comments, or else they’d file a complaint with the state education department. After the board hired a lawyer, who told them the resolution was illegal, they came up with the second resolution accusing Paladino of leaking secret information.

It might be several weeks before there’s a decision in the case. Both sides will now file legal briefs, and New York State Education Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia, who presided over the hearing, will then issue a written decision.

The Buffalo school board president, Barbara Seals Nevergold, says even if the Buffalo businessman were allowed to stay on the board, she doesn’t think he could be an effective member.

“He’s indicated that he doesn’t feel that he’s bound by the policies related to executive session,” said Nevergold. “And I suspect, policies related to other things.”

And Nevergold says Paladino’s charges that the teacher contract was some kind of manipulative scheme are untrue, saying, “I haven’t rigged anything.”

Regardless of the outcome of the hearing, Paladino has already filed a federal lawsuit against the board, charging that his constitutional rights to free speech have been violated.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.