Government Lies, Corruption and Mismanagement
Changing Grades and Cheating in NYC: The Saga of Lies at Cobble Hill School of American Studies and Current Chancellor of the NYC DOE Carmen Farina by Philip Nobile
To members of the Panel, I am disappointed that you did not accept my invitation to inform you about cheating in the school system. Nobody on the Panel contacted me after my statement at your April 29 meeting. You expressed zero curiosity about my claim of an ongoing crime spree, ignored by the Chancellor, involving false grades in violation of Education Law 225, Section 225.
From Betsy Combier, Editor:
I met Phil when he was a re-assigned teacher/member of the 25 Chapel Street rubber room, and I worked for the UFT as a Special Representative who had the right and authority to visit the rubber rooms and talk with the UFT members there. Phil was certainly a talker.
He also documents everything.
We shared our many facts about Carmen Farina, who "retired" in 2006 to spend more time with her family, and her husband Tony. If you believe this I have a bridge to sell you. She was forced out by NYC DOE then Chancellor Joel Klein when she became a liability of the health, safety and welfare of the education mafia known as the NYC Department of Education.
I worked with Carmen while my youngest daughter attended PS 6 in Manhattan, and Carmen Farina was Principal. The only people Carmen liked were those people who became her personal servants. I was never one of those, but I did enjoy working on the arts funding program I designed for the Annenberg Challenge For The Arts grant, given to PS 6 and PS 198 for three years, $75,000/year. Carmen has to this day never revealed where the money went. I asked her AP on May 23, 2000, and that afternoon Carmen called me up at home and screamed the worst, most obscene words at me that I have ever heard. My mom, had she known, would have taken a bar of soap and washed Carmen's mouth out. After about 20 minutes of listening to this hysterical rant, I hung up on her. I also reported her to the NYC Department of Education Office of Family Engagement for violating the NY Law on School Leadership Teams (SLTs). She was reprimanded, and removed in February 2001. Everyone at PS 6 was happy, outside of her little army of "Sturmabteilung" or brownshirts. One of her army members was Kathy Pelles, a major player in the saga detailed by Phil Nobile.
He and I agreed on at least two issues:
1. Carmen Farina should not hold any administrative office at the NYC Department of Education (see both Phil's and my stories about why we feel that way, below)
2. His story, involving cheating on tests, and the sudden turnaround of the story from cheaters getting reprimanded to cheaters not cheating at all, made no sense other than that Carmen was allowed to use the Office of Special Investigations to change the facts of the case to suit her needs. A shocking coverup.
Phil's documentation is extensive
He recently sent out the following:
To members of the Panel,
I am disappointed that you did not accept my invitation to inform you about cheating in the school system. Nobody on the Panel contacted me after my statement at your April 29 meeting. You expressed zero curiosity about my claim of an ongoing crime spree, ignored by the Chancellor, involving false grades in violation of Education Law 225, Section 225
(Unlawful acts in respect to examinations and records).
Are you not professionally and ethically bound to hear evidence of official misconduct, especially when laid in your lap and challenging the integrity and competence of the Chancellor?
Lest you assume that I am a crank and the Chancellor beyond criticism, you should know that UFT President Randi Weingarten appointed a committee in 2008 to vet my complaint against Special Commissioner of Investigation Richard Condon’s revisionist report dissenting from my allegations of Regents cheating and cover-up at the Cobble Hill School of American Studies, a cover-up that reached into Ms. Fariña’s Region 8 Superintendent’s Office.
Incredibly, she declared to OSI and later swore to SCI that she never knew a thing about a criminal Regents scandal at Cobble Hill. Why would a Superintendent make such an absurd claim a` propos a school she oversaw led by a principal she appointed?
The answer is simple: What she did not know, she could not be blamed for covering up.
Ms. Weingarten’s vetting committee consisting of then UFT Secretary Michael Mendel, then New York Teacher investigative reporter Jim Callaghan, and NYSUT attorney Chris Callagy determined that my 142-page complaint proved that Mr. Condon’s report was fraudulent and, consequently, that his exonerations of Ms. Fariña and other DOE officials were undeserved.
For your information, I attach the excerpt on Ms. Fariña from the 2008 complaint, my updated article “The Carmen Farina Nobody Knows,” as well as my April 29 statement to the panel. If this material does not convince you that Chancellor Fariña is unfit for her high office, or at least worthy of further investigation based on the 10 questions posed at the close of “Nobody Knows,” then you are not doing your job and, in effect, joining her cover-up. Thanks for your consideration.
The Carmen Farina Nobody Knows and the cold Regents cheating and cover-up case that haunts her, the Department of Education, and the Special Commissioner of Investigation of the New York City School District
By Philip Nobile
New Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina was up to her neck in a Regents cheating and cover-up scandal at the Cobble Hill School of Americas Studies when she was Region 8 Superintendent in Brooklyn in 2004. Farina was questioned by two separate agencies—the DOE’s in-house Office of Special Investigations (OSI) and the independent Office of the Special Commissioner of Investigation for the New York City School District (SCI), a unit of the Department of Investigation (DOI).
She did not emerge entirely clean. In 2005, after a yearlong inquiry the OSI investigator substantiated tampering by Cobble Hill’s Assistant Principal Humanities Theresa Capra and cover-up by both Principal Lennel George and Local Instructional Superintendent (LIS) Kathy Pelles. The investigator later testified that Farina was “dishonorable” and “lied” about a cover-up in the Superintendent’s office. In 2007, SCI strongly dissented. Their unprecedented two-year review of OSI’s inquiry found no cheating or cover-up by anybody including Farina. The investigator took it on the chin for “arriving at a number of conclusions which were not supported by the evidence.”
So who was right about the Cobble Hill affair and Farina’s role in it — the OSI investigator or the Special Commissioner? The integrity of two agencies was at stake. One of them screwed up badly, possibly corruptly. Then UFT President Randi Weingarten expressed her vexation in a letter to the City Council in April 2008:
It is a serious matter when the two public agencies charges with investigating allegations of wrongdoing in the Department of Education come to conclusions about the same situation that are not just different, but completely contradictory. There is simply no way to reconcile the two reports--if we accept the conclusions in one report, the other report is clearly wrong. Such a contradiction raises doubts about the finding of the two agencies, and puts into question the confidence the public has in the results of their investigations. The public needs to know that whatever went so wrong in the investigation of at least one of these agencies is identified and corrected.”
And now that Farina is Schools Chancellor the public also needs to know whether she is worthy of the city’s and Mayor de Blasio’s trust.
This cold Regents case has an amazing but true twist. Farina’s OSI interrogator was Lou Scarcella, the muscular ex-NYPD homicide detective currently accused of railroading countless murder suspects in Brooklyn. Although renowned in police circles for extracting confessions, he could not inveigle one out of Farina under the peculiar circumstances of their encounter. Still, her answers did not ring true. Her amnesia regarding what she knew and when she knew it seemed too precise.
Nevertheless, Scarcella tracked the cover-up right to Farina’s door in the person of LIS Pelles, her office mate at Region 8 headquarters on Livingston Street. Pelles admitted concealing the cheating allegations from investigators and, purportedly, from Farina and her successor Superintendent, Marcia Lyles. Scarcella felt that Pelles’s tale of a total office blackout was improbable. Why would a LIS ever withhold such red hot information? He was sure that she duly informed her superiors of the tribulation at Cobble Hill and that like Pelles they kept investigators in the dark in violation of Mayoral Executive Order 16, SCI’s Reporting Obligations, and DOE procedures. As much as he preferred to nail the big fishes, the buck stopped with Pelles in his report. Apparently, there was scant enthusiasm at the top of the DOE for playing hardball with these VIPs, especially since Farina had recently ascended to Tweed where she sat at the right hand of Klein as Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning.
OSI’s smoking guns
It is tempting to discard with prejudice Scarcella’s judgment on Cobble Hill. But in fairness he is owed the courtesy of a credibility check, which SCI purported to do. As the original whistleblower in the case, and for it is worth, I can vouch for Scarcella conclusions as far as they went because they were based on my leads, profiling, and document drop. Among the most incriminating evidence in Scarcella’s files were:
-an indiscreet email to me from AP Capra premeditating the tampering: “Let’s try to focus on getting these kids a 65. In a pinch they can get points from writing any old garbage down, you are going to love grading time.”
-all too transparent, real time emails to me from teacher Elliot Cohen, Capra’s then boyfriend now husband, describing the “crimes” in her grading room as “obscene,” dishing “the whole thing is a sham,” and admitting “I did a ‘favor’ for 2 of my favorite students, and trust me it was ridiculous.”
-three detailed confessions from untenured Capra protégés implicating her:
“Mr. Leardi said Ms. Capra gave him examinations that were graded in the 50’s. Mr. Leardi said that when he asked Ms. Capra if it was all right to change grades from failing to passing, Mr. Leardi said that she said, ‘Yes.’ Mr. Leardi said that she ‘blessed’ the changing of failing grades in the 50’s to passing. Mr. Leardi said that he agreed to do it because he wanted to help the students who failed, and wanted to please Ms. Capra.”
“Mr. Colon said that in 2003, after the standard process of scoring essays was completed, Ms. Capra gave him a stack of papers that were failures. Mr. Colon said that Ms. Capra asked him to go back and rescore the failures. … Mr. Colon said that he passed these examinations. Mr. Colon said that deep down inside he knew this was wrong. Mr. Colon said, ‘I cheated.’ Mr. Colon said that he did this because he wanted to be part of the ‘team.’”
“Mr. Cohen said that Ms. Capra engaged in the same practice that he and Mr. Colon engaged in and she also knew it was the wrong thing to do. … Mr. Cohen said that Ms. Capra gave the graders failed tests and knew that they cheated. Mr. Cohen said, ‘She was our supervisor, she knew everything we did.’ Capra knew he was coming to OSI and said to him, ‘Tell the truth.’ … This investigator asked Mr. Cohen why Ms. Capra did this. He said, ‘To look good.’”
-three eyewitness statements from teachers in the grading room further entangling Capra:
“Mr. (Ken) Kaufman said that during the correction sessions in June 2003, Ms. Capra gave him a stack of tests that were failures and told him to pass them.”
“Mr. (Terry) Swords said that he remembers Ms. Capra saying, ‘See if you could find some points.’ Mr. Swords said that Ms. Capra handed out tests and said, ‘These tests need three points.’ Mr. Swords said that Ms. Capra asked the graders to find points on examinations (essays) that were already marked in the low 60’s.”
“Mr. Nobile said that he specifically remembered that Ms. Capra took a stack of failing examinations and handed them to Mr. Colon for scrubbing. ... Mr. Nobile said [the tampering] was done under Ms. Capra’s direction and approval.”
-a coup de grâce letter from Steven Katz, Chief of the Bureau of Assessment of the New York State Education Department (NYSED) dated April 6, 2004:
“Please review the attached copies of documents we received from Mr. Philip Nobile, a social studies teacher at Cobble Hill School for American Studies. You will note that Mr. Nobile alleges that an Assistant Principal at Cobble Hill School for American Studies, Ms. Capra, directed several non-tenured teachers to revise student scores on those two (Regents) examinations upward to over the 65 score point (passing). …
“In our judgment, the aggregation of scores assigned in the 65 -69 range (97) as compared to the 60-64 range (7) for students of the Cobble Hill School of American Studies on both (Social Studies) Regents examinations, goes beyond any dispersion, magnitude or directionality that is likely to be attributable to chance.”
Showing consciousness of guilt, Capra quickly skipped town without speaking to Scarcella or demanding an audit that could conceivably prove her innocence. She was subsequently fired from an AP job on Long Island for concealing her suspension from the DOE. So much for the cheating charge and Capra’s poor character.
As for cover-up by the Principal and LIS, the evidence was even more unassailable and involved obstruction as well:
-Principal George’s violation of city law:
Mayoral Executive Order 16 stipulates that “Every officer and employee of the City have the affirmative obligation to report, directly and without undue delay, to the Commissioner or an Inspector General any and all information concerning conduct which they know or should reasonably know to involve corrupt or other criminal activity ….”
SCI’s Reporting Obligations contains similar language: “Every officer and employee of the City School District of the City of New York, the Chancellor, the PEP and all other officers have the affirmative
obligation to report, directly and without undue delay, to the Special Commissioner of Investigation, any and all information concerning conduct which they know or should reasonably know to involve corrupt or other criminal activity”
Fact--George disclosed nothing to SCI of my repeated oral and written allegations of Regents crimes between May 2003 and May 2004. When Scarcella paid his first visit to Cobble Hill, George buried the NYSED package and the Capra/Cohen emails: “Mr. Nobile said that George is involved in a cover-up. In this investigator's first meeting with Mr. George, he did not give this investigator all the documentation with regard to this investigation.”
-LIS Pelles’s violation of city law: Fact--Not only did Pelles fail to call the cops, she clammed up in the Superintendent’s office before and after Farina left for Tweed, or so she said to Scarcella. Her defense for interring my complaint was laughable: “On one hand, she said she would inform OSCI if she received allegations (of cheating). On the other hand she admitted that she did not inform investigators of Mr. Nobile’s allegations because she only had ‘conversations’ with Mr. George about them.”
-Pelles’s and George’s obstruction:
Mayoral Executive Order 16 also outlaws “any investigation concerning corrupt or other criminal activity or conflicts of interest without the prior approval of the Commissioner or an Inspector General.”
SCI’s Reporting Obligations carries a warning against hampering investigations: “Interference with or obstruction of the Special Commissioner’s investigations or other functions shall constitute cause for removal from office or employment, or other appropriate penalty.
Acting without authorization from investigators and allegedly without Farina’s knowledge, Pelles nonchalantly okayed an illicit in-house inquiry: “I did not investigate. I allowed Mr. George to investigate. … I was at the school after February 25, 2004. Mr. George told me that a teacher told him about Regents cheating. I don’t remember what I did. It was not addressed to me. He said he would investigate. I said good luck, investigate. I did not tell the state. …I did not ask for anything in writing. There was no report.”
Predictably, George’s simulated, paperless detective work unearthed neither tampering nor cover-up. Set up as a false accuser, I made an end run to the State Education Department that in turn cast overwhelming statistical doubt on Capra’s Regents grades, and thereupon pressed Superintendent Lyles to arrange a genuine inquest into my allegations.
A Leak to the New York Times
Scarcella’s 30-page report, crammed with verbatim interview notes from all the players, was dated May 25, 2005. Despite slamdunk evidence hooking Capra, George and Pelles, there was no rush to discipline. Klein’s DOE had a notorious soft spot for prodigals in management. Weeks went by, but nothing happened. Scarcella and I feared the stall was just more cover-up. Maybe nothing would have happened if somebody had not leaked a copy of his suppressed report to the New York Times in late June, somebody probably inside OSI, maybe Scarcella himself, though he always denied it to me.
David Herszenhorn, the Times education reporter, started calling Farina. He wanted to know why the Principal was still in place. She had no good answers. Before you could say Mayoral Executive Order 16, George was unceremoniously summoned to Lyle’s office on the morning on June 27, preventing him from attending the school’s graduation. Lyles was cold-blooded. He was removed the following day and doomed to a termination hearing. In contrast, though guilty of the same offenses and theoretically held to a higher standard, Pelles escaped with only a written reprimand from the DOE stating that she “did not adequately advise the principal, Lennel George … to follow established DOE policy and report the allegations to OSCI and/or OSI.”
Was Pelles’s soft landing less a punishment than a reward for taking a bullet for her Superintendents, that is, for maintaining beyond all logic that she shielded Farina and later Lyles from news of alleged crimes in a school they supervised, led by a principal Farina had personally appointed, just as she was transitioning to Tweed to replace Diane Lam who was fired in a conflict of interest mess? As implausible as Pelles’s version seemed, consider the beneficial effect: what Farina and Lyles were not told, they could not be accused of covering up. Pelles was their alibi, but did it have legs? Read on.
An arbitrator shifts the Zeitgeist
OSI Case # 04-2907 did not die a natural death. It sprang back to life as SCI Case #2005-2006 soon after the Times broke the Cobble Hill story on July 1. (“Principal Hid Fraud on Tests In Brooklyn, Officials Say”). A confidential source channeling Scarcella’s frustration told SCI that “the cover-up extended to higher ranking officials including then Region 8 Superintendent Marcia Lyles and then Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning Carmen Farina.” This tip set off a 23-month, no expense spared review of OSI’s substantiations.
On June 26, 2007, Special Commissioner of Investigation Richard Condon sent a scorching 67-page report with 233 footnotes to Schools Chancellor Joel Klein roasting OSI on all sides. “What I say is that the investigation showed no credible evidence that there was cheating. And certainly no evidence that this principal covered up evidence that there was cheating,” Condon declared in the Times. (“New Report Clears School of Cheating, June 27, 2007)
Klein embraced SCI’s verdict that exonerated the previously guilty Capra and Pelles as well as the suspected Farina and Lyles. As for George, a funny thing transpired at his 2006 proceeding. He was acquitted of cover-up even though Arbitrator Barbara Deinhardt arguably determined otherwise when she wrote: “… it appears that at the time that Nobile brought up some question about Regents grading in the Spring of 2003, George was busy and distracted and essentially told Nobile that he didn’t have time to talk to him. … George may well have assumed that this was just one more in this series of complaints by Nobile and brushed it off in his preoccupation with other matte[r]s.”
Give me a break. My early verbal warning was the professional equivalent of a bomb threat. What could be more important to a first year principal than news of criminal activities in his building? In addition to absolving George for his brushoff in 2003, Deinhardt overlooked his subsequent bad acts in 2004, that is, covering up NYSED’s game changing letter, my memos on Capra’s cheating ring, and the incriminating emails. N.B. George did not testify that he “was busy and distracted.” Contradicting Deinhardt’s state of mind invention, he swore that our conversation never happened.
Nevertheless, Deinhardt’s non-acquittal acquittal shifted the Zeitgeist. Klein cleaned house at OSI even before Condon released his report that stung Director Theresa Europe and her Deputy Tom Hyland for “completely failing in their oversight of Scarcella” and Scarcella for being “biased from the onset” and “acting as an agent of the complainant.” Europe was demoted, Hyland fired, and Scarcella forced to resign. Despite portraying me as the Moriarity of Cobble Hill with 600-plus mentions, mostly unflattering, Condon did not charge me with misconduct or recommend any penalty, not even a letter to my file for slinging mud at immaculate educators. Although Klein treated his own people like roadkill, he sheathed his wrath with me, the scoundrel who mistook himself for a whistleblower. Wonder why.
SCI’s review of OSI’s smoking guns
It is counterintuitive to suppose that Condon’s sleuths headed by Special Counsel Eileen Daly would crank out a brazenly bogus report that, in effect, whitewashed the Cobble Hill crimes, exculpated wrongdoers, and heaped all the blame on the OSI trio and me, though strangely had no comment on the four teachers who corroborated me. Why would an outfit established to root out corruption in city schools corrupt itself by throwing a Regents case? Rather than speculate on the politics behind SCI’s revisionism, it would more productive to examine their forensics, in particular, their take on Scarcella’s rack of smoking guns catalogued above. Only then can the public realistically deduce, a` la Weingarten, which agency botched the case and Farina’s part in it.
Invoking the reasonable person standard, SCI did not have a snowball’s chance in Tahiti of subverting OSI’s substantiations … unless they argued that multiple eyewitness, both friends and foes of Capra, were not credible, that damaging documents were not covered up, that NYSED’s analysis did not count, that emails did not mean what they literally said, and that George and Pelles did not break all the rules around reporting corrupt and criminal conduct.
Or if these arguments were lacking, they would have to play it cute as below:
-Capra’s “points” for “garbage” email: SCI downgraded this ur-text to a footnote and somehow failed to gain comment from Capra on its meaning during two interviews, only three words of which were quoted. She described her relationship with Cohen circa October 2005 as “personal and tumultuous,” which was probably a reference to their broken engagement in the wake of Scarcella’s report. If she was questioned about the accusations of her teachers, NYSED’s letter, her reckless disregard for an audit, and her subsequent masquerade on Long Island, matters central to the case—her answers were missing from SCI’s report.
-Cohen’s “obscene” “crimes” emails: originally, Cohen told Scarcella that they referred to “cheating.” But he recanted at George’s hearing in 2006 after marrying Capra. SCI accepted his testimony that the overgenerous Regents “scoring rubric,” never cited in his emails, was “obscene” and caused the scoring “crimes.” But no attempt was made to reconcile Cohen’s novel claim with opposite statements by five other teachers including me. All of us affirmed that the tampering occurred after the exams were graded according to the rubric. Cohen emphasized this same point over and over in his pre-marital confession to Scarcella. One example: “Mr. Cohen said that he gave points above the rubric scale which constituted cheating.”
There was a dum-dum bullet inside this smoking gun—my kickoff email to Cohen. On the evening of June 19, 2002, we chatted on the phone about our virgin experience with Regents grading earlier that day. Both of us were surprised by the casual tampering that went on. After hanging up, I made a final point via email: “Hector (Colon) should go to work for Enron after what he did today. Good thing (then UFT Chapter Leader) Terry (Swords) wasn’t in room.” We picked up the cheating thread the next day. I wrote: “Last night you said there was a lot of hanky-panky in Global corrections. I only noticed the scrubbing at the end on a few cases like (Student A). Did I miss something?” Cohen’s answer was not: “I don’t get the Enron reference and what do you mean hanky-panky? I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Instead he went with the flow: “The whole thing is a sham. Their essays were terrible all around and received points when they should have gotten ZERO.” Nothing about rubrics.
Husband Cohen can blow smoke around his meaning, but mine was unequivocal: there was cheating in June 2002. At the time, I was in my AP’s good graces and buddies with Cohen. He and I sat on the committee that interviewed her for appointment as Assistant Principal. “If only our department were filled with teachers like you, hard-working and sincere, my job would be cake. I really mean that,” she e-mailed me on June, 11, 2002, a week before Regents. In this super clubby atmosphere why would I whip up a mean, make-believe Enronesque scene reflecting terribly on my friendly AP … with her boyfriend already?
-three confessions: Two of the three personal admissions of tampering were left standing without challenge.
SCI did not speak to Leardi or comment on his three-peat of guilt to George (email), the Superintendent’s office (hand delivered letter), and Scarcella (interview).
Colon actually reaffirmed his OSI confession: “During the interview conducted under oath in the presence of his attorney at the SCI office, Hector Colon admitted that he cheated in scoring Regents exams. …‘I did change tests I shouldn’t have. I mean I didn’t follow the rules.’” If there was no cheating, Colon perjured himself, copping to a crime he did not commit. Why would an innocent teacher do that? Usually, statements against interest are deemed persuasive. `Since Condon claimed that there was no “credible evidence” of cheating, Colon’s stubborn, all too believable outpouring had to be discredited. Instead, it was reinforced. Trashing their own report as well as their boss, the SCI author(s) confirmed Colon’s credibility in two separate passages in order to save Capra:
He repeatedly testified that Capra gave him a pile of exams and told him to “take care of them” or “take care of it” with no further instructions. Colon conceded that Capra never told him to cheat, never told him to find points that were not there, and never told him to get the students to pass. Despite the absence of such an instruction from Capra, Colon concluded that she meant that he needed to give points to pass the students and he did just that. …
Colon attempted to assert that she (directed teachers to cheat), but in the end, he admitted that he changed scores of his own accord.
First, the reasonable person would understand Capra’s cryptic order to “take care of” already graded exams to mean only one thing—(wink, wink) tampering. The Information Booklet for Scoring Regents Examinations in Global History and Geography and United States History and Government neither requires nor recommends nor even mentions, and therefore could not be construed to permit, re-reading exams close to passing. Only math and science Regents mandate re-reading when the score falls between 60 and 64.
Second, let’s get real. How likely is it that “of his own accord” an untenured teacher would risk his career by changing grades in full view of his AP and without the AP catching on? N.B. SCI provided no alternative interpretation for “take care of” and apparently did not ask Capra about it.
Certainly, the most powerful flesh and blood evidence against Capra came from her grading and bed partner. Cohen lavished Scarcella with her motive, means, and opportunity. His description of an illicit after-hours huddle was a precious detail: “Mr. Cohen said that he was in Ms. Capra’s office after the official marking session ended. Mr. Cohen said that Ms. Capra gave him a stack of papers that had already been graded to official grading standards and failed. Mr. Cohen said Ms. Capra said to him, ‘re-check these.’ Mr. Cohen said that Ms. Capra implied he was to cheat.” He even estimated the number of defiled exams: “Mr. Cohen said that approximately thirty failing papers had been changed”
Yet not a syllable of Cohen’s case-clinching OSI confession appeared in SCI’s report. Instead Condon’s people canonized his subsequent post-marital testimony generously spread over three pages: “Cohen reported that Scarcella ‘coerced, bullied, and threatened (him) into believing that (he) had done something wrong.’ Cohen asserted that he ‘would have done anything to get out of the room and be away from his threats.’”
There were two problems with this sob story. First, if Scarcella bulldozed him into a false confession, how come it closely mimicked the same facts, language, and anecdotes of the other eyewitnesses? For instance, Leardi told Scarcella about an exchange with Cohen regarding a “bad kid”: “Elliot Cohen grabbed (an exam booklet) from Leardi and said, ‘This is a bad kid. He does not pass.’” Sure enough, Cohen recalled the same dialogue: “Mr. Cohen said that Mr. Leardi gave him a failing test paper and asked him if it was all right to pass the student. Mr. Cohen said that he said, ‘No, that is a bad kid, he does not pass’”
Second, SCI neglected to confirm Scarcella’s enhanced interrogation with the third person in the room--Arthur Solomon, Cohen’s UFT advocate. “It never happened,” Solomon insisted. “I would have stopped Scarcella if he had acted as badly as Cohen testified. That’s my job.” And who is more credible—a UFT rep with no reason to lie or a new husband with every reason to deny past statements inimical to his bride? Lastly, if Cohen is to be believed, he was a fabulist of genius, instantly adlibbing in a panicked state a comprehensive account of fictitious crimes orchestrated by his inamorata that coincidentally matched the statements of his colleagues.
“This has been hell for me,” Capra told the Times. “In a heartbeat someone can accuse you of something falsely.” Like the man she married, I suppose.
-three eyewitness statements: SCI ignored two of the three eyewitnesses—neither Kaufman, a former Navy pilot, nor Swords, a former chapter leader and member of the Principal’s cabinet, were interviewed. Thus their OSI statements confirming cheating remained inviolate.
As for me, despite major huffing and puffing about my motive, timing, zeal, undisguised contempt for Capra, and tight association with Scarcella, SCI produced no evidence backing Deinhardt’s theory that I cooked up the cheating story to checkmate Capra’s plan to rate me out of the system at the end of my upcoming probation in June 2004. If I wanted to save my job, making an easily disproved false complaint was not very bright. A swift audit of the exams that were still in the building could have instantly exposed my perfidy. Showing consciousness of moral certainty, I proposed an audit to George in two early memos and later to Klein and Condon through my former City Councilman David Yassky. I also appealed to Katz’s superior, former NYSED Assistant Commissioner Jean Stevens. None agreed to this no-brainer. As a last resort, I asked Weingarten to contact Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch. “Merryl and I talked—she said she would look into it,” Weingarten emailed me on July 29, 2009. That was the last I heard.
A thought experiment: an examination of evidence X will prove or disprove a criminal accusation. The accuser suggests, argues, begs for an examination of evidence X. But the accused never demanded an examination that would possibly prove their innocence, if indeed they were innocent. Whom to believe—the accuser who says, “Look at X, please,” or the accused who say in effect, “Please, don’t look”? You don’t have to be King Solomon to decide who is more credible.
Further, SCI found no contradictions or inconsistencies in my OSI statements, memos to George, interview with the Attorney General’s Office, and voluminous emails and faxes to myriad city and state officials. Every comma of my story stood up. Neither Capra nor George nor Pelles said a word about me in SCI’s report. Even their sympathizers could not come up with anything unsavory in my three-year history at Cobble Hill.
Yes, I loathed the ground Capra walked on, but so did others. Coincidentally, on the same day that I gave George my first cheating memo (Jan. 26, 2004), two members of his cabinet—special ed coordinator Judith Alexander and Swords, then running the 9th grade Ramp Up program--met with George to protest her brand of leadership. In a memo to the ad hoc School Improvement Committee Alexander wrote: “We kept hammering the same point back to him—that if he doesn’t take a visible stand against Capra he is guilty by association and is losing the trust of his staff along with their respect. … If Capra keeps terrorizing staff, then he has not kept his word.” Without a hint of irony Cohen cracked to SCI that Scarcella and I were “in bed together.” I much prefer his earlier testimonial telling Scarcella that I was a “muckraker,” which was a compliment coming from a U.S. history teacher.
Nonetheless, I acknowledge a hiccup in my hearing testimony. Unable to poke holes in my story, George’s sneering counsel badgered me about my peer relationship with Scarcella. (I had published investigative pieces in the Times, New York, Esquire, Village Voice, the Weekly Standard and New York Review of Books.) Flailing about for something to twist into suspicion, she alighted on phone calls, as if that had anything to do with anything. SCI highlighted the exchange: “Nobile admitted speaking with Scarcella more than once by telephone. He said ‘maybe’ they spoke more than 10 times, but he answered, ‘I don’t recall’ when asked whether it was more than 20 times.” What the hearing transcript could not convey was my level of derision. Fed up with the counsel’s strategic misdirection, I substituted sarcasm for sincerity. You had to be there. The Javerts of SCI did not rest until they counted the exact number of calls and gratuitously footnoted them: “An analysis of Nobile’s telephone records revealed 114 calls to Scarcella’s telephones between May 2004 and July 2006. An analysis of Scarcella’s telephone records revealed 121 calls to Nobile’s residence between July 2004 and July 2006.” Notice the padding: Scarcella’s inquiry was completed in May 2005, but calls were counted for more than a year later.
While on the subject of my bromance with Scarcella, a blinding obsession of both Deinhardt and Condon, I say all the better. Their claim that my extraordinary assistance tainted the results was unsupported and oblivious to context. After all, whom was Scarcella going to trust, me who turned over the incriminating documents or George and Lyles who covered them up? Some whistleblowers come with mere allegations like the “confidential source” who wagged SCI’s dog, and some like me come locked and loaded with—e.g., the aforementioned docs, multiple eyewitnesses, confessed wrongdoers, NYSED statistics, and topped off by a villain who fled the scene of the crime without looking back. Reproaching Scarcella for maximal brainstorming with me showed lack of imagination. I drew a roadmap based on my inside knowledge and Scarcella, on his first cheating case, doggedly drove the investigation as far and as high as he could. Even if I had ghosted his report, as SCI slyly implied, that would not change the facts on the ground. “To this day, Mr. Nobile was correct about everything,” Scarcella insisted in the Times.” (June 27, 2007) After two years of negative research SCI did not prove otherwise.
So what was up with all the phoners? Investigator-to-investigator, we had a lot to talk about. In short, we were transfixed by the corruption that spread like flesh eating bacteria from Cobble Hill to the Region 8 Superintendent’s office to Tweed and crossed over to SCI, not to mention the burlesque of the George hearing.
Principal George’s cover-up and internal investigation: SCI neither interviewed George nor quoted his hearing testimony nor commented on his fake in-house probe that even Pelles knocked as “crappy” and Deinhardt as “not as aggressive as it should have been.” Worst of all, SCI neglected to point out George’s uncontested double violation of Mayoral Executive Order 16 and SCI’s Reporting Obligations. Rather, he was exonerated via the Eichmann defense: “We agree with the hearing officer that Lennel George did not engage in a cover-up. He conducted an investigation at the direction of his supervisor.”
LIS Pelles’s coverup and internal investigation: SCI’s paltry 137-word interview with Pelles, the highest ranking administrator nabbed in the cover-up, came down to a single inadequate sentence:
Pelles acknowledged that she told George to conduct an investigation into the complaint of Regents cheating at Cobble Hill and that she did not report the allegations to Lyles or Farina.
The first clause confirmed that Pelles broke city law banning freelance corruption investigations and flouted the obstruction statute in SCI’s Reporting Obligations. The second clause omitted the far more important and legally consequential failure to report the allegations to SCI, which Pelles admitted to Scarcella and which SCI deleted from the record! This exclusion of evidence that ran afoul of SCI’s own Reporting Obligations is evidence of corruption. With the same breathtaking non sequitur pardoning the Principal, SCI exonerated the LIS: “Pelles was not involved in a cover-up. She directed George to investigate Nobile’s complaint.”
Testing Farina’s Credibility
The passages on Farina and Lyles in OSI’s report were disturbingly inconclusive. With a nod from Scarcella I expressed my misgivings to Chief Counsel Michael Best who oversaw the DOE’s Legal Services Department including OSI. In a July 11, 2005 email I lobbied for an expanded investigation because the two ladies, “when their memories were working, gave nonsensical answers to Mr. Scarcella's extremely limited questions.” If not, I promised to appeal to SCI (little did I know then…). Best did me the favor of forwarding my skeptical message to SCI which had already been tipped off to “a high level cover-up” by a confidential source. Scarcella and I were not alone in smelling a rodent.
Scarcella’s interrogation of Farina
Farina’s appointment at OSI in November 2004 had the appearance of preferential treatment owing to the sudden participation of Deputy Director Hyland. Previously, Scarcella had interviewed witnesses without supervision. But a Deputy Chancellor was a very big wheel, a Superintendent, too. Somebody upstairs was looking after them. Scarcella said that Hyland censored his list of questions, which I helped devise, and cramped his style. But even Farina’s prophylactic responses left a lousy impression when her memory failed again and again and again:
This investigator asked M. Farina when she first became aware of the cheating at Cobble Hill. She said, “I don’t think it was when I was Superintendent. I don’t remember.” She was asked if she had any discussions with Superintendent Lyles about the Cobble Hill situation prior to mid-April 2004. She said, “I don’t remember.” She was asked if she discussed Mr. George’s removal from Cobble Hill with Superintendent Lyles. She said, “We discussed it, not specifics, just general background, I can’t remember.” She added, “I didn’t know the tests under investigation were Regents. I thought it was something between Mr. George and an A.P. with inflated grades. She said that she had never heard of the complainant, Mr. Nobile. (emphasis added)
Was Farina that spacey? Quite the opposite. “A beloved and at times feared administrator, Farina seemed to know everybody in the nation's largest school system and has an uncanny ability to recall students from decades ago,” Herszenhorn observed in the Times on the occasion of her premature departure from Tweed. (“Top School Aide Becomes the Latest to Step Down,” April 27, 2006) Why would this razor sharp, hard driving executive fall into a fugue state when asked about dramatic turning points in a scandal synchronized with her elevation to Tweed?
Herewith a credibility check denied to Scarcella and ducked, as we shall see, by SCI:
On not recalling when she learned of my allegations, that is, whether during or after her Superintendent’s tenure in Region 8.
It is unlikely that Farina did not remember when she was informed about Cobble Hill, especially when the question was refined to pre or post arrival at Tweed. First, if the news arrived while she was still in Brooklyn, would she not have notified investigators asap? After all, she told Scarcella that “standard operating procedure” in her office “required reporting tampering allegations to O.S.C.I. and the state.” Since she made no such report, she could not have known about Cobble Hill when she was Superintendent … unless she was lying. Second, the last thing she needed as she started up at Tweed was a criminal cloud over a school she supervised. If Pelles had spared the bad tidings during this sensitive transitional moment, Farina could not possibly forget because she would have slipped into Tweed without nasty a Regents mess gnawing at her heels.
On not recalling whether Lyles, her successor in Region 8, spoke to her about Cobble Hill before mid-April, that is, before the state stepped in.
If Farina said, “Yes, I remember that Lyles gave me a heads up in that time period,” she would have wrapped Lyles and herself in a cover-up because neither contacted SCI. A “No” could have caught her in lie, if contrary evidence emerged. “I don’t remember” was an easy dodge. In her first couple of weeks at Tweed, that is, from mid-March to mid-April 2004, news about Regents cheating at Cobble Hill would have landed like a ton of bricks and lodged in her head, unforgettably.
On not discussing the “specifics” but just “general background” with Lyles regarding Scarcella’s request to expel George from Cobble Hill pending completion of his probe.
Flashback to September 1, 2004, the day Scarcella made his request. Lyles was in a major pickle. There was an escalating crisis at Cobble Hill. It began the previous January with the first of my three whistlelblowing memos and soon swelled with Capra’s and Cohen’s emails, NYSED’s ominous letter, the annulment of Social Studies Regents grading at Cobble Hill, OSI’s sweeping investigation, multiple confessions and detrimental witness statements, Capra’s suspension and swift resignation, and now Scarcella wanted George out, too. What to do? Lyles reached out to Farina at Tweed. George was her baby. She installed him and effusively praised his leadership in a letter the previous September:
I want to thank you for the wonderful visit I had to Cobble Hill High School. In walking around the school and visiting classrooms, it is evident that everyone has worked hard to make major improvements at Cobble Hill. It is a tribute to your leadership and to the strength of your staff that the school has come so far so quickly. …
I can’t wait to start sending visitors to see your school and to support the work, as well as to recruit students to your school.
Allegedly, for the last five months, April through August, Lyles has kept all the Cobble Hill developments off Farina’s plate. But now, in September, with Scarcella on the prowl, she finally called her former and current boss. George’s fate was in Farina’s hands. Yanking him would be a harsh blow. Not only would he suffer humiliation, she would be embarrassed, too, just as she was taking charge of the Chancellor’s education reforms.
Naturally, Farina would be curious, personally and professionally. What had George done? Did Scarcella have the goods? Should she stand up for him or dump him? What was best for the school? For the students? For the DOE? She waited for Lyles’s explanation. What brought George to this awful place? She needed all the facts in order to deal fairly and smartly with the situation. But Lyles offered no “specifics” and she did not ask for any?
That is how Lyles remembered the phone call, too. Scarcella’s handwritten notes read verbatim: “On Sept 1, 2004, after this investigator requested Mr. George’s removal—I (i.e., Lyles) called Ms. Farina. She knew there was an investigation—we did not talk—just the merits of his removal of Mr. George.” (underline in original).
But the story still did not add up: a Superintendent and a Deputy Chancellor deliberate firing a principal during the first week of school but NEVER address the reasons why. Lyles knows but won’t tell. Farina knows not, but won’t ask. Inconceivable. Or inconceivable mismanagement. And capping off Farina’s far-fetched response, was an added: “I don’t remember.” Why add that exclamation? It seemed as if she were overcompensating, distancing herself from any connection with the Cobble Hill case, even at the expense of telling such a whopper.
On thinking that the Cobble Hill investigation involved inflated course grades, not Regents scores.
More baloney. Squabbles between principals and APs about course grades are not the stuff of OSI concern. But it was the sort of dumb thing people say when embellishing a prior prevarication.
Where did Scarcella’s interrogatory leave Farina’s credibility? To the reasonable man, strategic memory loss, aka pinpoint amnesia, is a red flag. She blanked on three questions at the heart of the alleged high level cover-up. Alone with Farina, Scarcella might have tied her in knots, but not with Hyland standing guard. Consequently, OSI rendered a no-decision on Farina, substantiating neither guilt nor innocence. Same for Lyles.
SCI’s interrogation of Farina
Fifteen months later in February 2007 Farina had her rendezvous with SCI. This was the agency’s chance to follow up Scarcella’s questions and her answers to refresh her recollection tk. In the long interim she had time to check her records to discern what she knew and when she knew it and how allegations of Regents cheating hit a roadblock in her office. Condon’s team was professionally and ethically bound to look diligently at the possibility that Klein’s now retired Deputy, whose duty it was to guarantee the bona fides of the city’s Regents scores, had been a lying cheat herself. Although Farina was the paramount person of interest in SCI’s review, her interview was compressed into 140 words with no quotes from the transcripts. Whatever she swore was summed up in two vastly uninformative sentences:
Farina’s testimony was consistent with the facts in the Scarcella report. She denied any knowledge of the complaint about cheating at Cobble Hill.
SCI’s Interrogation of Lyles
SCI’s 305-word interview with Lyles was similarly constricted—no questions or answers, no effort to drill down into the cover-up in the Superintendent’s office. When Condon concluded that Lyles was above reproach he contradicted his own report that stated slickly but unequivocally on page three: “The Region did not refer the NYSED letter to this office.” Lyles told Scarcella “that the standard operating procedure in the Superintendent’s office regarding an allegation of Regents tampering was to report it to O.S.C.I. and the state.” So she knew the right thing to do, and chose the wrong thing. Her non-compliance was incontestable evidence of cover-up that SCI discounted.
Lyles and Pelles lied to the state
If there is a sliver of doubt that the Region 8 Superintendent’s office was a snake’s nest of cover-up, consider a May 10, 2004 letter drafted and signed by Pelles and addressed to Katz in Albany. Herewith the first two paragraphs:
I am responding on behalf of our Regional Superintendent Dr. Marcia Lyles, to your correspondence of April 6 and May 7.
Shortly after returning from our April vacation (around April 14) we received your original letter asking for an inquiry into allegations concerning the scoring of Global History and U.S. History Regents examinations for June 2003 at Cobble Hill High School. We immediately forwarded your letter to the Office of the Special Commissioner of Investigations for the New York City School District. (emphasis added)
According to Condon this forwarding claim was a fabrication. In reality, “we” (Lyles/Pelles) buried the state’s letter in the Superintendent’s office precisely because “we” did not want SCI or OSI getting wind of it along with attached memos on Capra’s unscrupulous m.o. Consequently, when Scarcella landed at Cobble Hill, he had no idea that Katz and I were already on the case and that Katz had demanded that the DOE via Lyles “undertake an inquiry into the allegations that were presented to us.” So what brought him to the school in the first place?
The plot thickens. There was a second whistleblower, Leardi, the West Pointer. Although he initially denied the tampering to George, his conscience soon kicked in with Scarcella: “Mr. Leardi said that he is coming forward because Ms. Capra is treating Mr. Nobile very unfairly and is spending too much time giving him ‘Unsatisfactory’ ratings.” On April 4, Leardi hand delivered his own j’accuse to Lyles’s office:
During the June 2003 Regents I did in fact see Theresa Capra personally change grades that were in the 50’s to passing and sometimes even bumped up to the 70’s. I could not swear that these were not legitimate but the climate was one of desperation. The other teachers, including myself, were asked to review grades in the 60’s (all of these changes were only on the Essays). Theresa personally took grades in the 50’s and 60’s and revamped them. In some cases, for children not to her liking, she did not bump up the grades.
Three days later, Leardi emailed George: “Yes, I did tell you an opposite story earlier and will own up to that. Like I explained I felt intimidated and did not want to rock the boat. I am telling you the truth. I have nothing to gain and everything to lose from doing this.”
Thus in the month of April 2004 Lyles possessed two incriminating letters--Leardi’s of the 4th and NYSED’s of the 6th. She was obliged to report both on to SCI, but she sent only Leardi’s. Why the distinction? Obviously, the state’s critique opened a can of worms, but potentially Leardi’s lament was a get-out-of-jail card. At the time, he had two strikes against him. Not only was he on mental health leave for “bipolar manic depressive disorder,” but he also admitted to a past “emotional infatuation” for the young and pretty AP.
In the beginning, Lyles’s gambit worked. When Scarcella read Leardi’s complaint, passed down the chain from SCI, he thought it was a loser. Without more than a formerly lovesick teacher with mental issues, there was nothing to go on. SCI noted Scarcella’s early skepticism: “During his testimony at the George proceeding, Scarcella stated that he was ‘leaning and, quite frankly, hoping that this case was unsubstantiated …’ However, Nobile caused him to restart his investigation.”
Not exactly. I told Scarcella that he was being duped by the Superintendent and the Principal who fobbed off Leardi as the lone and deluded informer. Actually, it was NYSED’s letter and the lagniappe of the Capra/Cohen emails, which I disclosed, that revived Scarcella’s interest. If this was “acting as an agent of the complainant,” as SCI overcharged, then all investigators who follow evidentiary trails proffered by whistleblowers act the same way.
The audit that never was
The greatest wound to SCI’s integrity, the dead giveaway that the agency turned rogue on Cobble Hill, was their reckless disregard for an audit, the DNA in any tampering case. At least Scarcella made an attempt, which SCI confirmed with Lori Mei of the DOE’s Division of Assessment and Accountability: “According to Mei, in May 2004, Scarcella asked that the Cobble Hill exams be rescored, but he later told her not to do so. As best Mei could recall, Scarcella said that he had enough evidence and did not need to look at the exams.” Scarcella had a different memory: “At SCI, Scarcella testified that Mei told him that she did not have the resources to re-score the exams.” Apparently, neither put their assertions in writing contemporaneously, leaving their conflict unresolved.
Anyhow, if Scarcella said that he had enough evidence, he was right. His documentation was off the charts, credible enough to sway layers of DOE lawyers to do the almost unthinkable, that is, charge and prosecute a principal for covering up Regents cheating. George went to his hearing without a peep about an audit that could conceivably redeem him and expose me and the other teachers as the worst persons in the world for framing our upright AP.
If an audit was a luxury for Scarcella, it was essential for Condon because he went out on a limb claiming “no credible evidence of cheating.” His team had two years to inspect the booklets and score sheets for signs of tampering, particularly erasures. Incomprehensibly, they tuned out my repeated pleas for an audit and treated the disputed exams like nuclear waste. Even crazier, Condon quoted one of Mei’s test experts saying that “to assess an allegation of grade tampering properly, rescoring is critical.”
If SCI had followed their own witness’s advice, they would have seen what I saw—erasures on 51 of the 97 passes between 65 and 69. In an undated memo to Scarcella I identified each tampered exam and noted the mode of manipulation.
In one instance, I spied multiple erasures on a Global History test whose final grade was raised from 52 to 67. The initials on the booklet were Capra’s. How did she do that? By inflating the ratings on two essays by 2 points each on a 0 to 5 scale. She changed one essay originally rated 3 to a 5, and a second originally rated 2 to a 4, and by raising two document based questions (DBQs) by 1 point on a 0 to 2 scale. Because essay scores are weighted a 1 or 2 point uplift counts for a multiple of points sufficient to reach or exceed the passing score of 65.
In sum, Condon dared to say that there was “no credible evidence” of grade inflation without checking for grade inflation! This was the equivalent of a medical examiner finding no credible evidence of poisoning in a suspected homicide without benefit of an autopsy. To draw the analogy nearer to Cobble Hill, the medical examiner was aware that three people had confessed to poisoning the victim and three others claimed to have been in the room when it happened.
The rest of the story
During a second interview with SCI in July 2006, Scarcella told them something omitted from his report--Farina was a liar, and Lyles, too, by implication.
“Mr. Noble, in my opinion, was the most honorable man involved in this investigation and everyone else I interviewed were dishonorable–up to Carmen Farina.” Scarcella did not elaborate on Farina’s role, but later testified that Nobile “was out for justice, ” meaning that “there was a cover up here” and Scarcella believed that Scarcella was “lied to by people in the Board of Education, including Carmen Farina.” Scarcella also said: “I believe that Mr. Nobile believes that this cover up went right to the Chancellor’s Office, Tweed Courthouse.”
Scarcella’s belated burst of candor clashed with SCI’s theory of the case that Scarcella and I were the bad guys. But if Farina lied, then there really was a “high level cover-up” and Scarcella was not a tattooed sleazeball who for reasons SCI never explored connived with an avenging teacher to take out an AP, P, LIS, Superintendent and Deputy Chancellor. Now SCI had him just where they wanted him—under oath, on perjury watch, and making the sensational claim that the Deputy Chancellor was involved in a crime. His credibility was on the line. Two immediate questions arose--what did Farina lie about and why wasn’t that in his report? Either the questions were not posed or SCI did not approve the answers because the author(s) merely noted that “Scarcella did not elaborate on Farina’s role.” That was it, seven utterly unenlightening words on a central issue in the case. Had Condon’s squad honestly sought the truth about Farina’s credibility, their report would have read something like: “Scarcella refused to elaborate on Farina’s role despite our repeated attempts to get him to talk.” In the end, SCI let Scarcella’s condemnation of the Deputy Chancellor stand without counter or comment. The same bizarre passivity obtained when SCI interviewed Europe and Hyland. Despite Deinhardt’s decision, Europe reaffirmed Capra’s cheating and George’s cover-up; Hyland testified that George and Pelles “lied.” And again, no follow-ups, as if SCI was in the tank.
After Scarcella’s resignation in February 2007, he finally confided the rest of the story, that is, why he wound up allowing Farina and Lyles to walk. There was a meeting in a conference room with Europe and Best to discuss a draft of his report. “They loved it,” he explained. “Best said I did a great job. He said, ‘I know Farina lied but I can’t go after her. She’s a Deputy Chancellor.’” Lyles, a future Deputy Chancellor herself, was also off limits.
I believe Scarcella’s reluctant outing of Best and Europe, but should anybody else? Where is the evidence that these lawyers betrayed professional ethics by running interference for Farina and Lyles? Ultimately, did their allegiance bend toward the DOE or the truth? Circumstantial evidence favors Scarcella’s account of this eventful meeting and, consequently, upholds a high level cover-up. First, the timing: in light of the Lam scandal it would have been a public relations catastrophe for Klein if two of his hand-picked Deputy Chancellors for Teaching and Learning went down in flames one after the other. Second, Scarcella’s interviews with Farina and Lyles were warped by the exceptional presence of Europe’s Deputy Hyland. Third, Scarcella’s uncharacteristically indecisive write-ups of Farina and Lyles were at complete odds with his incisive SCI testimony, suggesting that his OSI report was sanitized. Finally, there was Europe’s revealing May 18, 2004 email to Pelles, Lyles and Mei on the subject of my complaint that Capra and George, in reprisal for my whistleblowing, planned to discontinue me on the grounds of five straight unsatisfactory observations: “Are you looking into whether Mr. George intends on firing Nobile. Timing would really be bad for us as it would look like a straight case of retaliation. Please let me know.” Bad for us? This phrasing showed where Europe’s fealty lay.
N.B. On May 25 George signed my death warrant, checking the “Unsatisfactory” box on eleven of the fifteen key performance measures on my Annual Professional Performance Review. But on June 14 he changed my rating from a career-ending U to a tenure-granting S. SCI explained the astonishing turnaround in an unsourced footnote: “Lyles determined that there was not enough documentation in Nobile’s file to support George’s end of the year unsatisfactory rating of Nobile.” Rubbish. Five U observations in four months was more than enough documentation to discontinue me. Lyles’s determination otherwise implied that retaliation was George’s real motive, his only motive. But any confirmation of George’s revenge would contradict SCI’s theory that I was the avenger.
A truth commission starting with Farina
We have reached the Q.E.D. stage of this article. The Gentlemen’s Agreement between Condon and Klein to squelch OSI’s report and cover up for Farina and Lyles validated Steven Levitt’s dictum in Freakonomics that “teacher cheating is rarely looked for, hardly ever detected, and just about never punished.”
Politically speaking, there was no advantage to kayo the Regents crime spree. Fair or foul, the higher the pass rate the greater the graduation rate on which rested Mayor Bloomberg’s and Klein’s claim to education fame. And they were not alone in profiting from the fruits of inflation. Everybody in the system looks better when scores rise by any means necessary, which is why nobody of prominence in the Regents, NYSED, the DOE, and the UFT shouted out against affirmative cheating. Under Klein the DOE ended erasure analysis and averted their eyes from suspicious patterns like Cobble Hill’s. In this kingdom of the blind even the watchdogs declined to bark. Norm Scott, the I. F. Stone of ed bloggers and a former teacher, admitted that he “would never whistle blow -- figure it's like baseball players on steroids -- if everyone does it everything balances out. … Well, I guess I don't have problems with grading generously and would think that if a kid was close to a 65 I would think about what I am doing to that kid by giving say a 64.”
The effects of this massive flim-flam were ugly: educators became cynics and low grade lawbreakers, graduation stats were falsified, the true extent of the achievement gap was camouflaged, and thousands of failing students, mostly black and brown, were granted unearned diplomas with all the baggage that can carry over a lifetime.
Thanks to shaming by the Wall Street Journal, the corroded old days of Regents rigging are over. In 2011, based on research by three economics professors, the Journal reported that changing Regents grades was business as usual in New York City. (“Students’ Regents Test Scores Bulge at 65,” February 2). The economists found “that the rates of test manipulation in NYC were roughly twice as high as those in the entire state. We estimate that [in 2009] roughly 6 to 10 percent of NYC students who scored above the passing threshold for a Regents Diploma actually had scores below the state requirement.” Klein, recently resigned, declined comment on this dagger to his reputation. His successor Dennis Walcott was loudly silent, too.
Seven years earlier, the New York Post published a wake-up story headlined “Teachers Cheat: Inflating Regents Scores To Pass Kids” (January 26, 2004):
Some of the city’s public high schools have a dirty little secret: They’re inflating Regents exam scores to give more students a passing grade.
Educators even have a name for the unwritten rule: “scrubbing.”
“I’m sorry if it’s shocking for laymen to hear. Scrubbing is something we do to help kids to get their asses out of school,” a Manhattan English teacher said unapologetically.
In a next day follow-up headlined “Klein Vows To End Test ‘Scrubbing,’” the Chancellor declared: “There better not be any fudging on the Regents numbers. I'm certainly prepared to enforce (the rules against cheating) . . . If people are trying once again to take shortcuts, we've got to put an end to that." Apparently, these words of warning were his first and last on the taboo topic. As a result, the cheating continued to be universally tolerated until the Journal’s devastating exposé embarrassed the Regents into beefing up test security. Intramural grading is now prohibited—teachers can no longer “scrub” their own students’ exams. Instead, all Regents are shipped off to central locations for scoring by random teachers. Still, the culture of cheating remains wide and deep and adaptable. Any teacher will tell you.
Soon, Condon will face an Inspector General of the DOI who awaits my 250-page corruption complaint regarding his what-me-audit (?) review: Points for Garbage: How Special Commissioner of Investigation for the New York City School District Richard Condon in league with Schools Chancellor Joel Klein subverted an open and shut criminal case of Regents tampering, obstruction, and cover-up. With homage to Mary McCarthy, there is little risk in concluding that every word in SCI’s report “is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'”
Farina and Lyles are not the first superintendents of urban school systems to be hit with cheating scandals. Beverly Hall was indicted in Atlanta, Michelle Rhee was accused though never charged in Washington. But Farina and Lyles, now Superintendent in Jersey City, would be the first to gain promotions afterward, and is that such a good idea? In this era of gun-to-the-head accountability in which careers live and die by pass rates, cheating will continue to prosper one way or another. On my weekly rotations as an Absent Teacher in Reserve in Brooklyn high schools I frequently hear about pass quotas in the 70 to 80 percent range, and if they are unmet, things happen to teachers. One told me that her principal called her in after second marking period to say, “I want twenty more students to pass your history classes” and, inevitably, twenty more did. Another told me that non-compliance led to the loss of lunch period. Is anybody, including Farina, checking on the inordinate fondness for 65s in course grades? Is the Archbishop of Cantebury Catholic?
Where to go from here? Administrator and teacher cheating is so entrenched, watchdogs so out to lunch, and Tweed so apathetic that only a Truth Commission, as proposed by UFT President Michael Mulgrew, can hope to unclothe the sordid history of Regents tampering and prevent cheating binges in the future. Ideally, the Chancellor would be the lead-off witness.
Ten questions for Carmen Farina
1 Let’s talk about Cobble Hill, which goes to your credibility and competence. You told Scarcella that you couldn’t remember whether you were informed of the cheating allegations when you were Superintendent of Region 8. Since you made no report to investigators, it follows that you did not have a clue when you were Superintendent. Otherwise, you would have contacted investigators, isn’t that right? So why would you say you couldn’t remember?
2 Regarding Scarcella’s demand to remove George in September 2004, you told Scarcella that you did not discuss “specifics” with Lyles “just general background. I can’t remember.” Can you remember why you didn’t insist on specifics? After all, you appointed George, supervised him, lauded him, owned him. Weren’t you curious to know what your Principal was accused of? How else could you advise Lyles? Wasn’t it professionally irresponsible to deliberate George’s fate with your eyes closed? Finally, do you remember why you allowed George to remain on the job?
3 Last January the New York Times attributed your “rise” in the DOE to “a hands-on and blunt management style.” It appears you were anything but on the Cobble Hill case. You told Scarcella that you never asked Pelles why she covered up the cheating allegations from you, as well as Lyles and SCI. You said, “I was at Tweed. I was not her superior.” Yet you were her superior’s superior. As Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning, weren’t you every teacher’s and every administrator’s superior? Pelles was your hire in Brooklyn and she disgraced your office on your watch. Why so hands-off on such a crucial matter? Where was your blunt management style?
4 You also told Scarcella that you didn’t know that the “tests [under investigation] were Regents. I thought it was something between Mr. George and an A.P. with inflated grades.” That’s sounds farfetched. Who could have given you such wrong information? In your four decades with the DOE, have you ever heard of another instance of OSI’s investigating a quarrel between a principal and AP regarding inflated school grades? Anyhow, did you follow-up after you were told that that school grades were the issue? If not, why not?
5 Regarding discipline, Pelles received a letter in her file for cover-up, but George got a 3020-a for the same misconduct. Why the disparate treatment when he was following her orders? As Deputy Chancellor in 2005 when Scarcella’s report was released, you were in a position to recommend, if not assure, equal treatment, at least to avoid the appearance of favoritism that flowed from Pelles’s slap on the wrist. Did you happen to recommend termination for Pelles? If not, why not? Why George and not her? At least he reported up the chain, which Pelles said she did not.
6 What about Lyles’s role in the cover-up? According to SCI, she suppressed NYSED’s damaging letter containing Nobile’s allegations by failing to forward it to SCI. Presumably, she did not forward it to you, either, because you “thought it was something between Mr. George and an A.P. with inflated grades.” Why didn’t you discipline Lyles for violating DOE procedures? If Pelles was reprimanded because “she did not adequately advise” George, shouldn’t you have disciplined Lyles for not adequately advising you, her superior?
7 Since the disputed Cobble Hill Regents exams have never been officially rescored, if you remain Chancellor, will you call for an audit? And if it meshes with the six Cobble Hill eyewitnesses, the state’s assessment, the Capra/Cohen emails, and ultimately OSI’s substantiation, will you place Capra, now an associate professor at Mercer County Community College in New Jersey, back on the DOE’s ineligible list? Will you likewise appropriately discipline George, still a principal, and Pelles, now a network leader?
8 During your time in the DOE to what extent were you aware of the “dirty little secret” of Regents tampering that went by the term of “scrubbing”? As Superintendent and Deputy Chancellor, what did you do to protect the integrity of Regents grades? Would you agree with Steven Levitt’s saying that “teacher cheating is rarely looked for, hardly ever detected, and just about never punished”?
9 The reigning “dirty little secret” involves school grades. Principals are known to set pass quotas for teachers which is certainly illegal, not to mention unethical. How will you stop this corrosive practice akin to Regents cheating—write a memo to principals, invite teachers to blow the whistle, identify schools with 65 bulges and check for cheating, all of the above?
10 Granted your willfully ignorant oversight in the Cobble Hill case, how can the city and the Mayor rely on you to run an honest DOE that will no longer cheat mostly minority students of authentic educations?
As a follower of my Regents cheating case in which the Special Commissioner of Investigation found that I was a false accuser (strangely without evidence or punishment), herewith an update:
In response to my 278-page corruption complaint against the Special Commissioner, the Chancellor, et al., the Department of Investigation offered two sentences:
“The Department of Investigation is fully prepared to conduct, where warranted, investigations of its own personnel, including high-level ones. In this case, however, DOI has determined not to take action on your complaint.”
Since I am unable to rouse the proper authorities, I have a doomsday plan to force my case. I will call the Special Commissioner and Chancellor liars and cheats in prominent places, thus forcing the Department of Education to charge me with “conduct unbecoming a teacher” and , consequently, granting me a hearing with all the accouterments of a trial. Thus I’ll trick my enemies into open court and cross examine the _____ out of them. It’s a no lose proposition since I’m retiring in June, in part, to exploit my Hollywood connections.
What could go wrong?
P.S. I renew my April 29 invite to contact me about the rampant, illegal false grading corroding our school system—John Dewey H.S. is the tip of the iceberg—while the Chancellor sits idly by confirming Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics dictum: “teacher cheating is rarely looked for, hardly ever detected, and just about never punished.”