Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Who will control the Special Commissioner of Investigation for Schools: Mayor de Blasio & Mark Peters Face Off

Update: Today the NY Post reports that the Mayor "has ordered his staff to review ways to fire his investigations chief amid a tug-of-war over control of an office that monitors corruption in the public school system."  If true that could set up a fight with the City Council and the Ritchie Torres, chair of  the Oversight and Investigations Committee, who has suggested amending the city charter to require "Council approval for firing a DOI commissioner... [and] to give DOI an independent budget, so its operational needs can 'no longer be at the mercy of City Hall officials.'”  

I have also looked at new Executive Order de Blasio signed over the weekend.  It's not clear to me that de Blasio can fire the new SCI Commissioner Susan Lambiase as the EO is 1- dated after the new one was appointed and 2- it says the SCI hiring and firing must be done by the DOI Commissioner with the "consent" of the Mayor.  So the Mayor appears to be stuck with Lambiase, unless he manages to fire Peters or convince him to fire her.

A serious controversy has erupted about who should control the appointment of the Special Commissioner of Investigation for Schools (SCI) – the Mayor or the Commissioner of Investigation Mark Peters.

On Sunday, Mayor de Blasio signed an executive order requiring that he have the final authority over any appointment or removal of the SCI.

This occurred only four days after Commissioner Peters fired a former prosecutor he had recently hired, Anastasia Coleman, who had objected to his efforts to restructure the office, and replaced her with Susan Lambiase, a former deputy.

The New York Times explains the controversy this way:

" On one side was a series of mayoral executive orders, the earliest dating back to 1990, and two Board of Education resolutions of similar vintage, which give the office its authority. On the other was paperwork prepared by Mr. Peters’ staff that would have given him full control. The outgoing schools chancellor, Carmen FariƱa, has refused to sign it....”

Here is the original 1990 executive order that created the SCI office:

This Executive Order requires the Commissioner of Investigation to appoint a Deputy Commissioner of Investigation for the City School District of the City of New York (“Deputy Commissioner”), who will be independent from the Board of Education, and will be responsible for the investigation of corruption, conflicts of interest, unethical conduct and other misconduct within the school district of the City of New York.

It seems clear from the above that despite the Mayor’s claims, the Commissioner of Investigation has the full authority to appoint the SCI head. Yet the NY Times goes on to say:

“.... Mr. Peters has made additional unilateral changes that appear to run afoul of the orders and resolutions, and which, along with his other actions, would largely eliminate the autonomy that the office has had since it was created in 1990 and which has helped enable it to aggressively root out corruption.”

Umm, really? Many of those paying attention have questioned whether this office has "aggressively root out corruption" especially when it comes to top DOE officials. In too many cases, the SCI has referred cases back to the DOE, or turned against whistleblowers.

For example, Diane Ravitch writes:

Several years ago, when Klein was chancellor, I became aware that someone from the DOE was sitting in the front row of my lectures and tape recording what I said. It was spooky. Subsequently they used my words to compile a dossier about me, saying that I had changed my mind on several issues and that they showed I was a hypocrite and a liar. I wondered if it was OK for the DOE to use public funds to hound me.

I asked my friend David Bloomfield for his advice, and he suggested I see the SCI. I did, I was interviewed, and at some point, the interview turned into an investigation of me! Why was I complaining? Was I jealous of the Chancellor? What were my motives? Etc. I never trusted the SCI after that ugly experience.

When the office was first established, NYC schools were not under mayoral control but operated separately by the Board of Education. At that point, the SCI served as a truly independent watchdog – although the first SCI Commissioner Eddie Stancik, appointed during Mayor Dinkin’s administration, was occasionally accused of being a publicity hound and exaggerating his findings to undermine the reputation of the Board.

Here is an excerpt from the NY Times obituary of Stancik, who died at the early age of 47:

Mr. Stancik operated independently of the board, rankling a succession of schools chancellors who sometimes accused him of overdramatizing cases to enhance his own reputation. None, however, could force him out, since Mr. Stancik could be removed only by the city's commissioner of investigation, who reports to the mayor. Mr. Stancik's office was created in 1990 as an outgrowth of the Gill Commission, which was appointed during the Koch administration to investigate patronage, politics and corruption in the school system. The commission concluded that the board's investigative arm was ''reminiscent of the Keystone Kops,'' persuading Mayor David N. Dinkins to create the independent investigator's post.

In October it was announced that Richard Condon, a former police Commissioner, was retiring as the Special Commissioner of Investigation, after 15 years on the job. During all those years, the Mayor has controlled the schools, making the independence of the office far less guaranteed. Too often Condon has failed to make public his findings or has turned over allegations of cheating to the DOE itself to investigate through its internal Office of Special Investigations, which has proven to be even more biased and/or inept.

In most of the large-scale multi-million dollar DOE corruption cases, the underlying facts were first uncovered and revealed by investigative reporters like Juan Gonzalez, as in the massive fraud undertaken by Future Technology Associates. In another case in which top deputies to Chancellor Farina were found having charged thousands of dollars to their DOE credit cards, Condon waited nearly three years before releasing his report through a Freedom of Information request.

The office has also failed to post the results of most of their confirmed findings, with transparency worsening over time. Only two reports were published on the SCI website in 2016 and 2017 – one exculpating a top City official and the other lacking a clear finding. The latest published report was from September 2017, which rather unconvincingly cleared the DOE of giving Deputy Mayor Buery any special treatment when enrolling his kids in NYC public schools.

The other report, from November 9, 2016, involved the choking death of a seven-year-old girl, Noelia Lisa Echavarria, at PS 250 in Williamsburg. That very lengthy and detailed report included interviews with many school staff and students but offered no conclusions or recommendations, and simply concludes: “We refer our findings for your information and any action you deem appropriate.”

In contrast, the concurrent press release said this: " The investigation did not find any misconduct. " Strangely, Qwasie Reid who apparently was the first EMT on the scene and who was featured in numerous newspaper articles at the time, wasn’t interviewed because he apparently could not be located by SCI investigators.

The fact that the SCI posted only one investigative report in all of 2016 occurred despite the fact that during that year, there were 6,336 complaints, 772 investigations and substantiated findings in 25% of cases, according to the annual statistical summary -- which means 193 cases of official misconduct. Moreover, while the SCI statistical summary generally comes out in January annually for the preceding year, none has so far been released for 2017.

To their credit, the SCI office does respond to FOILs, but under Condon, they charged 25 cents per page for copying and required payment in cash or a certified check. They also demanded that the reports be picked up in their office downtown, instead of simply emailed, as is usual, and some are full of redactions.

A notable example was the SCI report released in 2008, which dealt with the misdeeds of former Deputy Chancellor Chris Cerf.   In December 2006, Chris Cerf, former Chief Operating Officer at Edison Charter schools and a DOE consultant, was hired as Deputy Chancellor by Chancellor Joel Klein. In February 2007, Cerf was asked by Tim Johnson, a NYC parent and chair of the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council, whether he owned any Edison stock. Cerf vociferously denied holding any, without revealing that he had divested the stocks hurriedly the night before, after seeing the topic listed on the CPAC meeting agenda. Here is the NYTimes account of the meeting, at which I was present:

Asked by Tim Johnson, the group’s chairman, to describe his financial interest in Edison Schools, he replied, “I’d be delighted to do that,” adding: “I have no financial interest in Edison of any kind. Zero.”

When Mr. Johnson persisted, asking, “Can we ask when you divested yourself of Edison stock?” Mr. Cerf said he would be “delighted” to give Mr. Johnson a copy of financial disclosure forms he said he was required to file as a public employee. “That will answer all of your questions, and that’s what I’m prepared to say today,” he added.

Mr. Klein, who spoke at the meeting after Mr. Cerf, said simply that “he is divested.”

Subsequently, I and others asked the Special Investigator to investigate the legality of Cerf holding onto these stocks for so long, given the fact that the DOE had several outstanding contracts with Edison. Though Condon’s report was completed in August 2007, it was not publicly released until I contacted the SCI office more than a year later, whereupon they demanded I file a Freedom of Information request. When I received it, it revealed negative findings, including that Cerf asked Edison officials for a donation for a favored charity in return for divesting. As the NYC Conflict of Interest board had pointed out,

“It appears that you were aware that Edison schools was likely to come before the DOE and/or to be affected by your official actions on behalf of DOE.”

The board recommended no disciplinary action but reminded Cerf that such violations "can result in civil fines of up to $10,000 ... and other penalties." The Special Investigator also found that Cerf had relinquished an ongoing consulting contract with another Edison-connected firm at the same time as he gave up the stocks, a contract that could have been worth $2.5 million.

The Special Investigator’s report pointed out there were mistakes and omissions in Cerf’s official financial disclosure forms that appeared to relate to ongoing class action lawsuits against Edison. He was subsequently allowed to amend these forms, though such omissions can also result in termination of employment and criminal prosecution.

Here is the story by investigative reporter Juan Gonzalez about the controversy, with the headline, Schools Big Eyed By Conflict Board. The story was also covered by the NY Times, with the milder headline, Schools Official is Chided About Soliciting Donation.

In any event, the report was brought up in 2011 when Cerf was appointed NJ Education
Commissioner by Chris Christie. In response to a reporter’s query about these events, Cerf viciously attacked Tim Johnson: “In an e-mail, [Cerf] called him [Johnson] a ‘pathetic, two-bit player’ and a ‘stooge’ for the United Federation of Teachers.”

There may have been even more damaging revelations in the SCI report, but the copy I received was so full of redactions, that GothamSchools (now Chalkbeat) called itThe investigation into a top school official that you never read.” Among the issues left unaddressed, or at least unreadable, were whether Chancellor Klein had asked Cerf to sell his stock, and if so, why Cerf waited so long to do so until he was asked about it by parent Tim Johnson.

Given this history, it seems obvious why the Mayor would like to control the appointment of the new Special Commissioner. While Peters himself was appointed by the Mayor, he has shown himself in recent months to be very independent and has launched several aggressive investigations into misdeeds at NYC Housing Authority and other city agencies. He has proven to be so independent that is has been reported that the Mayor would like to fire him – but has hesitated because of the even bigger scandal that might ensue and the fact that Peters could demand a City Council hearing.

Council Member Richie Torres was quoted in the NY Post today about who should control the appointment of the SCI:

“If disempowering the agency that investigates you fails to constitute a conflict of interest — let alone an abuse of power — then I’m not sure what does… It’s hardly a state secret that the mayor has a personal vendetta against Mark Peters. He saw an opportunity to undercut Mark Peters and he seized it. It is an insidious power grab under the guise of good government.”

Let's hope that whoever serves as the Special Commissioner of Investigation, he or she pursues a more independent and transparent direction, and follows evidence of cheating, financial malfeasance or corruption of any kind, no matter how which DOE officials are implicated.

1 comment:

NYC Educator said...

SCI is the scum of the earth. They run around screaming at teachers and probably intimidate a lot of those who don't know any better. I don't know who should be in charge, but it doesn't appear to me that anyone actually is.