ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — A one-time candidate for New York governor who publicly insulted former President Barack Obama and his wife appeared before the state's education commissioner Thursday on the first day of hearings to determine whether he should be ousted from the Buffalo Board of Education.
Wealthy developer Carl Paladino, a tea party-backed candidate for governor in 2010 and an early supporter of Donald Trump's presidential candidacy, has been targeted for removal from the school board since he told a Buffalo arts newspaper in December that he wished then-President Obama would die of mad cow disease and Michelle Obama would go live with a gorilla.
But the Artvoice comments, which drew throngs of protesters to board meetings, are not the basis for the unusual trial-like proceedings in Albany. The petition filed by Board President Barbara Seals Nevergold and other board members instead accuses Paladino of disclosing confidential information discussed in closed-door sessions.
For six hours Thursday, Paladino's lawyers grilled Nevergold about the open meetings law, board procedures and the timing of the removal petition, contending that the disclosure charges were trumped up because constitutional protection of free speech prevented action based on the Artvoice comments.
Paladino has filed a federal lawsuit saying the board is retaliating for the derogatory remarks he made about the Obamas and an attempt to stifle free speech.
Nevergold testified that Paladino breached a code of conduct when he went public with confidential information about teacher contract talks.
"When you go into executive session, the information discussed is confidential," Nevergold said.
Paladino has said his disclosures about teacher contract negotiations, after they had wrapped up, were in the public interest.
"This is all a charade," said Dennis Vacco, a former Republican New York attorney general who is one of the lawyers representing Paladino. Vacco said Paladino's remarks about the Obamas were "low and unfortunate," but were "nonetheless constitutionally protected."
During her testimony, Nevergold said she was deluged with angry comments from "around the world" demanding Paladino's ouster after his remarks were publicized. Protests at meetings made it hard to get anything done, she said.
Nevergold said she and the board's majority followed their legal counsel's advice in filing a petition based on the contract negotiation disclosures rather than the controversial comments.
The removal petition was filed after Paladino refused to step down on his own as demanded by a resolution adopted by the board in response to the Obama remarks.
Groups petitioning Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia to take action have focused not only on the Artvoice comments, but on what they call Paladino's long history of racially charged statements.
"As a mom in the district, I've been terribly upset by not only the deplorable comments, but also the belief that Mr. Paladino can violate executive board session rules without consequences," said Rachel Dominguez, a member of the Buffalo Parent Teacher Organization and Showing Up For Racial Justice.
The hearing is expected to last up to a week. Elia will issue her decision at a later date.
Paladino, elected to the school board in 2013 and re-elected in 2016, is a supporter of charter schools, vouchers and tax credits. He is regularly at odds with the school board majority and the city teachers' union.
The Buffalo Federation of Teachers also called for Paladino's removal following the Obama remarks