Lenny Palumbo is charged with stalking a schoolteacher’s wife and a state trooper. His trial is scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 24.
Perhaps if you study the facts, you, too, may have some reasonable doubt. The Niagara County DA has fought to keep this B misdemeanor case alive for years. However, the plea deals keep getting better — from “stalking” to “aggravated harassment” to “disorderly conduct” to “unreasonable noise.” Palumbo has refused them all.
(Left) Was Lenny Palumbo falsely accused?
(Right) Lew-Port teacher and Union activist Rick Sweeney
openly criticizes Lenny
Palumbo at a school board
meeting. Did he secretly
conspire with his wife and
a state trooper to bring false
charges against Palumbo?
The case goes to a non-jury trial with Palumbo’s fate determined by Wheatfield Town Justice Robert Cliffe. Palumbo has never been in trouble with the law before.
The odyssey began for Palumbo when he ran for a seat on the Lewiston-Porter School Board, pledging to curb the Lew-Port United Teachers Union (LPUT).
Elected in May 2005, Palumbo, along with three other “independent” members, made up a 4-3 majority.
They cut the “Mentoring Program,” where teachers work one year but get paid for years afterward.
They conducted an investigation that led to middle school principal Jill Sherman not getting tenure.
Palumbo uncovered that superintendent Dr. Whitney Van Tine was seemingly plying the union with budgetary favors. The board refused to renew his contract.
They slashed a provision for unlimited sick time. And in a district with a $40 million budget — of which 75 percent is teacher salaries — the board presented a zero budget increase.
Certain LPUT members responded harshly.
Middle school teacher and union activist Rick Sweeney publicly called Palumbo “dishonest,” “disruptive” and “deceptive,” and announced his intention to “dismantle the current board majority.”
In retaliation, the board withheld from Sweeney extra-curricular coaching assignments, like soccer coach and ski club adviser, that paid him up to $3,000 each. During the public fight with the union, Palumbo received letters from divorce lawyers, dating services, psychiatrists, contractors and masseurs, sent in response to apparently phony inquiries. Palumbo found garbage on his lawn. His car antenna was broken and his mailbox knocked down. Anonymously distributed fliers depicted Palumbo as gay or as having committed lewd acts in front of nuns.
On April 3, 2006, Sweeney filed a police report with Lewiston police claiming Palumbo was driving past his house revving his engine and honking his horn.
Lewiston police cautioned Palumbo. He claimed he drove past Sweeney’s house because that was the route he took to get to town. Sweeney and Palumbo lived nine houses apart.
Palumbo’s 1999 Intrepid, he admitted, had a faulty exhaust. Palumbo told police he planned to sell the car.
On April 21, 2006, the Sweeneys installed a video camera outside their house. According to a journal kept by Rick Sweeney, on May 3, Sweeney met with Lewiston Police Chief Ron Winkley, showing him videotapes of Palumbo driving past the house. It was not clear Palumbo deliberately revved his engine, and the chief declined to arrest Palumbo. Sweeney, however, continued taping until Palumbo sold his loud 1999 Intrepid on June 14, 2006. Afterward, he drove a quiet 2005 Buick.
A week later, the board approved all extracurricular appointments for every teacher except Sweeney, costing him perhaps $10,000.
On June 26, 2006, Sweeney again met with Winkley and submitted more tapes showing Palumbo’s loud car passing Sweeney’s house. According to Sweeney’s journal, Winkley said he would take the tapes to a judge and await his opinion. Sweeney apparently neglected to inform the chief that Palumbo no longer drove the 1999 Intrepid that made the loud exhaust noise on the tapes.
Two days later, according to Mrs. Sweeney, Palumbo drove by slowly as she was walking. “He had no reason to go that slow,” she said. “He was trying to make me afraid.”
How afraid was she?
During the previous summer, Katherine Sweeney played against Palumbo in the J.J.’s Cabin volleyball league and met him sometimes in convivial social settings with other players.
On Sept. 18, 2006, Sweeney again called Winkley, who said the judge advised him that in order to arrest Palumbo, he would have to do more than drive “loudly” by the house.
In October, LPUT filed a grievance against the board, seeking to have Sweeney appointed soccer coach. Sweeney awaited the results.
On Nov. 26, 2006, according to Mrs. Sweeney, she was walking with her son when Palumbo drove past and stopped “for 10 seconds” in the middle of the road.
“Palumbo pulled in front of my house and hit the brakes, coming to a stop,” she wrote. “I was totally scared and felt unsafe. After a few seconds he took off again. I then sprinted home as fast as I could with my son and dog. I had no idea what he would do.”
According to a source in the Lewiston police department, when police asked whether Mrs. Sweeney wanted to swear out a warrant, Rick Sweeney told them he wanted to await the results of the grievance hearing before deciding whether to press charges.
Two days later, Sweeney learned the result of the hearing. He would not receive a coaching assignment.
On Dec. 3, 2006, Mrs. Sweeney signed a statement swearing she feared “for my safety and that of my children.”
The Sweeneys went to New York State Trooper Danny Cullen. Cullen’s wife, Danielle, was head of the PTA at Lew-Port middle school, where Sweeney teaches. When asked if he taught Cullen’s children, Sweeney declined to answer.
In 2005, when Palumbo investigated misconduct in the middle school, Danielle Cullen sent Palumbo a letter advising him to reconsider. Palumbo declined.
Danielle Cullen, like Sweeney, worked actively on LPUT politics. In fact, after Palumbo’s arrest by her husband, LPUT awarded Danielle Cullen its “Friend of Education” award, the union’s highest honor.
And on Dec. 5, 2006, her husband, Trooper Danny Cullen, arrested Palumbo for stalking in the 4th degree, a Class B misdemeanor.
After Palumbo’s arrest, all three Lewiston judges recused themselves. The case was transferred to Wheatfield town court.
In January 2008, the stalking case against Palumbo was dismissed. Palumbo hoped the matter was over. Then trouble hit.
According to Cullen, Palumbo was now stalking him in his car.
“Palumbo’s vehicle, a 1999 Dodge, was in front of me,” Cullen swore. “He glared at me in his rearview mirror ... stopped in traffic and yelled, ‘Who’s stalking who now?’”
Of events of June 24, 2008, Cullen wrote, “I was outside my residence. ... The operator of a vehicle beeped its horn and I immediately looked for my 7-year-old daughter, fearing the worst. I could not locate her. I witnessed the vehicle, now known to me to be driven by Leonard Palumbo, a 1999 Dodge Intrepid, drive slowly east. I ran to the edge of my property and watched the vehicle ...
“Palumbo slammed on the vehicle’s brakes and completed a right-hand u-turn. The vehicle accelerated ... came to a sudden stop (then) began to rapidly accelerate as if he was coming down my street. He instead turned abruptly right ... I located my daughter ...
“Minutes later Palumbo slowed by my driveway ... and gestured for me to come towards him. ... He was trying to entice me into a confrontation. As he was leaving ... he yelled, ‘Anytime, faggot!’ ”
There is one significant, maybe chilling, point in Cullen’s statements that is palpably untrue: Cullen repeatedly identifies Palumbo’s vehicle as a 1999 Dodge Intrepid — the well-known one seen on Sweeney’s tapes — with the faulty exhaust system.
State motor vehicle records show Palumbo sold his 1999 Intrepid to Fuccillo Chevrolet Inc. of Grand Island on June 14, 2006. The events described by Cullen took place in 2008. In spite of the flawed testimony, Palumbo was arrested again.
After the second charge was leveled, the original stalking charges were reinstated by county Judge Sara Sheldon Sperrazza. The DA had appealed the dismissal of the original case.
During this time, a man anonymously phoned a Lew-Port board member’s employer, threatening to “ruin his company.” A recording of the call exists. Witnesses have identified the caller as Rick Sweeney.
When Lew-Port teacher and football coach Brian Gunby suddenly resigned in August 2007, no comment was made to the press. Documents from the law firm of Hodgson Russ, the DA and LPUT reveal that his resignation was prompted because it was alleged Gunby had consensual sex with an 18-year-old student. No charges were filed. LPUT allowed Gunby to quietly resign.
When teacher Joan Donatelli was caught snorting cocaine in front of fourth-grade students, LPUT seemingly had one goal — preserving her pension. The DA consented to reduce charges. Donatelli was sentenced to 100 hours of community service.
But when it comes to Palumbo, the DA has ploughed through five courts and two years — on a B misdemeanor.
Ultimately, when a teacher’s union controls a board of education, teachers decide how much they’re paid. Taxpayers are powerless. And the people who try to fight it are sometimes ruthlessly rendered powerless. Except perhaps Lenny Palumbo. Almost anyone else would have taken the plea and succumbed.
We’ll await the results of Palumbo’s trial.
Frank Parlato Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.