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Not his first brush with law

Principal previously arrested in 2 DWIs

News Northtowns Bureau
When Frank J. Cannata was charged with drug possession in December, disbelief rolled across Grand Island.

Residents who know him in his many public roles - popular principal of Charlotte Sidway Elementary School, organist at St. Stephen's Catholic Church and former president of the School Board - were stunned by the news.

But that arrest was not his first. Cannata has been arrested three other times since 1999, according to court records.

He was arrested twice in 1999 for driving while intoxicated, according to Buffalo City Court records. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge on one count and was found guilty of DWI on the other.

More recently, Cannata was charged in 2003 with violating an order of protection and hitting an 11-year-old child. That case is pending.

Cannata and his lawyer, James Faso, did not return repeated phone calls seeking their comment for this article.

Cannata's run-ins with the law began soon after he was hired as Sidway's principal in December 1998.

He was driving on South Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo at 4 a.m. on a Sunday in February 1999 when police pulled him over and recorded his blood-alcohol content at 0.16, according to court records. At the time, driving with a level of 0.10 or higher in New York was considered intoxicated; the level has since been lowered to 0.08.

Cannata pleaded guilty in City Court a few days later to driving while ability impaired. He paid a $300 fine; his license was suspended for 90 days.

One month later, he was charged with driving while intoxicated at 11:20 p.m. on a Wednesday on Main Street. The blood alcohol level was not listed in court records, but he was found guilty of DWI, paid a $500 fine and agreed to continue attending counseling. His license was revoked for six months, court records indicate.

More recent charges against Cannata stem from an alleged incident in his home.

Family Court issued an order of protection against him in September 2003. Two days later, he was charged by the Erie County Sheriff's Department with violating that order in his Grand Island home and endangering an 11-year-old child.

"There is an allegation he struck a child and caused a physical injury," said Rosanne Johnson of the Erie County district attorney's office.

The charges against Cannata do not involve any children at Sidway Elementary. Further details are protected as part of Family Court records.

The case has been delayed in Grand Island Town Court several times at the request of Cannata's attorney, prosecutors said. He is due in court Wednesday.

Cannata, 40, made headlines in December when federal agents said they found methamphetamine and Ecstasy in his Buffalo apartment. He admitted to investigators that he uses the drugs, according to an official from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

After he was arrested, Cannata was immediately suspended by the school district from his job as principal of Sidway, which educates pupils in kindergarten and first grade. He continues to collect his $97,000 salary, as required by state law.

School officials have hired attorney Tracie Lopardi of Hodgson Russ to conduct an investigation. Superintendent Thomas Ramming recently told a reporter that he knew nothing about the charges pending against Cannata in Grand Island Town Court.

A state law that took effect in 2001 requires schools to fingerprint new employees and run a background check. Existing employees were grandfathered. If they are charged with a crime, there is no guarantee the district will find out.

Ramming has filed papers with the state Education Department reporting possible moral misconduct, in relation to the drug charge. The state will conduct its own investigation.

In the weeks since his drug arrest, Cannata seems to have continued to enjoy overwhelming popularity among Grand Island residents, including St. Stephen's parishioners and Sidway parents.

He resumed his position more than a week ago as music director and organist at St. Stephen's. The Rev. Paul Nogaro has advocated for him since the drug charge surfaced, when Cannata was placed on paid leave at the church.

Nogaro said the congregation supports his decision to bring Cannata back. The pastor said Cannata is cooperating with investigators and going to counseling.

"We, of course, want to welcome people back, to support them in times of difficulty," Nogaro said. "It's something we as a Christian community can do. We're hoping for the best for Frank."