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Paladino defense questions school board leader on violating Open Meetings Law

WBFO News photo by Karen DeWitt

Testimony began Thursday in the long-awaited hearing for Buffalo School Board member Carl Paladino. State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia is holding the hearing in Albany in response to a school board petition calling for Paladino's removal.

Paladino attorney Dennis Vacco on the first day of testimony in the hearing.

Frank Miller, attorney for the school board, responds to first day of testimony.

The school board claims Paladino broke confidentiality rules by releasing teacher contract information from an executive session. 

Buffalo School Board President Barbara Seals Nevergold was the first witness called to testify and remained under questioning the entire day, delivering nearly five hours of testimony.

Paladino's defense team say Seals Nevergold "unlawfully" called for executive sessions at board meetings. Paladino's attorney, Dennis Vacco, said the board uses that as an excuse to fight against Paladino’s racist, published comments regarding then-president and first lady Barack and Michelle Obama last December.

“This is all a charade. That the petition itself is really a subterfuge to get at Carl Paladino in retaliation for his intemperate remarks that he made on December 23 in Artvoice,” Vacco stated.            

Vacco referenced the racist statements from that Artvoice article written by Paladino, where he said he hoped President Obama would die of mad cow disease and Michelle Obama would "return to being a male and let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe."

Credit WBFO News photo by Karen DeWitt
Carl Paladino in Albany for his hearing at the State Education Department.

“I decried them as being low and unfortunate. Those are unfortunate statements but they are still, nonetheless, constitutionally protected,” Vacco noted.

The defense points out a resolution from December 29, 2016 demanding Paladino’s resignation or removal.  

The defense team also played video clips from past school board sessions. Vacco claims those show the board "unlawfully” entered into at least three executive sessions without indicating a reason.

Nevergold was also cross-examined about information that claims Superintendent Kriner Cash asked for $10 million to avoid a teacher’s strike. Nevergold testified she pleaded with Cash to disregard the illegal strike talk. 

School Board attorney Frank Miller said they believed Paladino authored articles in Artvoice to advance his own political agenda. 

Credit WBFO News photo by Karen DeWitt
Inside the hearing room.

Under questioning by Miller, Nevergold testified that Paladino's actions interfered with the board's “ability to function.”

"I think her direct testimony was pretty compelling and I think through her testimony we established the lawyer-client privilege, confidentiality obligation was violated, the executive session confidentiality privilege was violated and these are serious violations," Miller told reporters following the hearing.

Miller responded to the defense claims that Nevergold 'unlawfully' called for some executive sessions.

"I think we addressed that very directly on re-direct exam because what they were relying on is simply not the law. The law is if that if you are meeting privately with your attorneys you are entitled to do so, and that constitutes an exemption to the Open Meetings Law," Miller responded.

Attorneys for both sides delivered their opening statements shortly after the hearing started at 9 a.m. Thursday.

Miller said his side intends to prove Paladino betrayed his oath when he revealed confidential information. He said it is believed Paladino authored articles in Artvoice to advance his own political agenda. 

Nevergold underwent lengthy cross-examination on executive sessions, the Opening Meetings law and the timeline of filing the petition against Paladino. She was released from the witness stand as the hearing wrapped up around 4:30 p.m.

Testimony will resume Friday at 9 a.m. 

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.
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