Board of directors

President: Dr. Mike Merrill is chief medical officer for Brook Health, headquartered in Seattle. Mike considers Investigative Post “the most important charity in Western New York.” Before attending medical school he worked as a newspaper reporter for three years after graduating from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Merrill earned his medical degree from the University at Buffalo and an MBA in business administration from the University of Liverpool. Prior to Brook Health, he served as chief medical officer at United Memorial Medical Center, Rochester Regional Health, and as a medical director for Independent Health.

Vice president: George Nicholas is senior pastor of Lincoln Memorial United Methodist Church. He is a member of the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo’s Racial Equity Roundtable, a convener of the Concerned Clergy Coalition of Western New York, and chair of the African American Health Disparities Task Force. He previously served as the CEO of the Geneva B. Scruggs Community Health Care Center and a legislative aid to Assembly Member Arthur O. Eve. Nicholas earned is undergraduate degree in sociology from Ohio State University, a master’s degree in public policy studies from the University at Buffalo and a master’s in divinity from Colgate Rochester Divinity School.

Treasurer: Susanne Francis is the vice president of finance at Spinneybeck | Filzfelt, a Buffalo-based importer and worldwide distributor of Italian upholstery leather and German design felt. A CPA, she previously worked as a senior auditor for KPMG and SUNY Geneseo, where she served as director of finance for the Auxiliary Services division. She formerly served as a director for The Park School of Buffalo. She graduated from Geneseo with a degree in accounting.

Secretary: Sarah Cohen is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has specialized in the use of data and computer-assisted reporting. A Buffalo native, she worked as a reporter and database editor for The Washington Post from 1999 to 2009, where she won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for investigative reporting. She later worked as the editor for computer-assisted reporting at The New York Times. Cohen has a long affiliation with Investigative Reporters and Editors, first as training director and later as a board member, culminating with her serving as president of the organization. She presently holds an endowed chair at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University and its Howard Center for Investigative Journalism, and previously taught at Duke University and Columbia University. Cohen, is a graduate of The Park School of Buffalo, where she served as a trustee and a member of the board of advisors. She  earned an undergraduate in economics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master’s in public affairs reporting from the University of Maryland at College Park.  

Leah Hamilton is associate publisher of  The Challenger Community News, the largest Black newspaper in circulation in the state outside New York City. Before returning to her native Buffalo, she worked in New York City for nearly two decades, including 15 years as senior creative art producer and art buyer for filmmaker Spike Lee at his agency, Spike DDB. During that time she also produced projects with a host of nationally acclaimed Black photographers. Hamilton also served as a senior reviewer for Power House Books portfolio reviews, as well as NYCFotoWorks and NY Photo Festival. Her involvement in Buffalo organizations has included the community advisory board for the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and as a judge for Squeaky Wheel Film and Media Art Center’s summer residency competition.

Chris O’Brien is an attorney and a trial lawyer and a partner in the law firm of O’Brien + Ford, handling personal injuries cases dealing with automobile crashes, sexual abuse and other negligence matters. For 20 years, Chris taught at SUNY Buffalo Law School. He has also taught lawyers and law students at a wide variety of seminars, law schools and conventions, both nationally and internationally. He currently serves on the board of directors at the Irish Classical Theater and the Erie County Medical Center. O’Brien is a graduate of Canisius High School, The College of the Holy Cross and Washington & Lee University Law School.

Samuel Savarino is owner and CEO of Savarino Companies, one of Western New Yorks leading general contracting, construction management, property management and development firms. He is also the managing member of TSC Construction, which provides engineering and construction services to the telecommunications industry. Along with his wife, Anne, Savarino has twice served as chair of the annual campaign of the United Way of Buffalo and Western New York. He has also chaired capital campaigns for Buffalo Hearing and Speech Center and The Food Bank of Western New York. Savarino currently serves on the board of Friends of the Night People, the Buffalo Hearing and Speech Center and the Buffalo Legacy Foundation. He earned a degree in history from the University at Buffalo.

Tom Toles is a Pulitzer Prize winning political cartoonist. A Hamburg native, he drew for The Buffalo Courier-Express from 1973-82 and The Buffalo News the following 20 years, winning the Pulitzer in 1990, before joining The Washington Post in 2002. He retired in November 2020. His cartoons appeared in more than 200 newspapers. In 2016 he published The Madhouse Effect, a book co-authored with scientist Michael Mann, about climate change. Toles has also authored and illustrated a children’s book, My School Is Worse Than Yours. He is the recipient of the Herblock Award, the National Headliners Award, the Overseas Press Club’s Thomas Nast Award, the John Fischetti Award and the H.L Mencken Free Press Award. He also has been honored as Cartoonist of the Year by Editor & Publisher magazine, The National Cartoonists Society and The Week magazine. Toles, a 1973 graduate of the University at Buffalo, maintains a second home in Hamburg.

Paul Vukelic is president and CEO of Try-It Distributing, a prominent beverage distribution company with a long tradition of supporting nonprofit organizations. He serves as a board member and past chairman of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, and board member of Open Buffalo, the Buffalo Renaissance Foundation, the Canisius College Board of Regents and Aviceda Therapeutic in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Vukelic recently served as co-chair of the Buffalo 5/14 Survivors Fund. He is a graduate of Canisius High School and St. Louis University, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in finance.

Ex-officio: Jim Heaney is the founder, editor and executive director of Investigative Post. He was an investigative reporter with The Buffalo News for 25 years. Heaney has won more than 25 journalism honors and was a finalist for the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting; more recently, he was a 2016 winner of an Edward R. Murrow Award and the 2019 Nellie Bly Award for Investigative Reporting. Prior to The News, Heaney worked as a reporter and editor with The Orlando Sentinel and founded a weekly newspaper that served the Kensington-Bailey neighborhood of Buffalo. He is a graduate of Medaille College, where he earned a degree in communications.

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