By JOE LoTEMPLIO Press-Republican
---- — PLATTSBURGH — Plattsburgh Housing Authority is taking legal action against its former director, seeking nearly $600,000.
The Housing Authority filed a summons with notice in State Supreme Court in Clinton County against Lori A. Cantwell.
The action seeks damages for “breach of fiduciary duty; rescission (the right to have a contract set aside if it has been entered into mistakenly); fraud and deceit; breach of contract and unjust enrichment.”
The principle amount of the damage claim is $272,468, plus $300,000 in punitive damages, plus interest, with interest fees continuing to accrue.
NO REASON GIVEN
Cantwell, 48, was removed from her duties on May 3 by the Housing Authority Board of Commissioners.
Commissioners are not talking about the case, and Cantwell and her attorney, William James, also said they cannot discuss details.
She did tell the Press-Republican that she asked for stated reasons for her dismissal, but the commissioners have not provided any.
Cantwell was named executive director on Oct. 1, 2011, replacing Pat Lucia, who retired after serving as executive director for 23 years.
At the time of her hiring, Cantwell’s salary was $127,173, which included compensation as executive director and as the Housing Authority attorney. Cantwell had served as the authority’s attorney for 14 years before becoming executive director.
Her salary was raised to $159,139 on March 1, 2012, according to information obtained by the Press-Republican from the Housing Authority through the Freedom of Information Law.
A form recording the pay increase was filed in the Clinton County Personnel Department in November 2012, signed by Clayton Morris as the vice chairman of Board of Commissioners.
Cantwell’s salary was then raised another $12,731 for an 8-percent longevity increase, and retroactively applied, for a total salary of $171,870, according to additional records obtained by the P-R.
Cantwell said she received only half of that 8-percent longevity increase, because half is given out in January and the other half in June. She also said $10,000 was taken off her salary for health-insurance payments.
ASSISTANT MOVES UP
Cantwell has been replaced by Mark Hamilton, who was the assistant executive director. Hamilton, who is the son-in-law of Morris, is receiving a salary of $80,000.
Morris, was chairman of the Board of Commissioners when Cantwell was hired as executive director, and he signed the contract for her employment.
Cantwell’s contract includes requirements if the board acts to suspend or end her employment.
“If the board seeks to suspend or terminate the employee for any reason, the board shall give written notice to the employee of the deficiencies in her performance,” the contract reads.
“Employee shall have at least ninety (90) days to correct her deficiencies.”
Cantwell told the Press-Republican that she will be “bringing counter-claims as appropriate.”
Her attorney said the summons of notice that Cantwell was served with was a very preliminary step and that an actual complaint has not been filed or served.
If that does happen, “I’m sure we will vigorously defend Lori’s rights under her employment contract with the Housing Authority and assert counter-claims,” James said.
Colm Ryan, the Albany-based attorney for Plattsburgh Housing Authority, did not respond to a call from the Press-Republican. Neither did current Housing Authority Board Chairwoman Shirley O’Connell.
MAYOR URGES AUDIT
The authority is a federally funded operation that provides housing for income-eligible people. It has more than 800 units in Plattsburgh for families and seniors.
City of Plattsburgh Mayor Donald Kasprzak, who appoints the commissioners to the Housing Authority Board, said he is concerned about the situation.
“I have become familiar with some of what has occurred regarding this situation and am angered and appalled, if what I understand is true did indeed happen,” he told the Press-Republican.
“A complete financial audit needs to be ordered, all the alleged allegations need to be verified, and the reputation of the Housing Authority needs to be restored. The general public and residents of the Housing Authority deserve to be informed of the facts as soon as possible.”
A spokesman from the federal Housing and Urban Development Department, which oversees housing authorities, said last month that it is not involved in setting executive director’s salaries.
North Country Congressman Bill Owens told the Press-Republican previously that he would refer the matter to HUD, which is the appropriate department to deal with any issues.
Email Joe LoTemplio:firstname.lastname@example.org