This is Part I in a Series.
Dear reader, please pull up a chair and get comfortable. I am going to begin to tell you a story. I have no intention of being brief so you might want to print this out or pull it up on your iPad.
After a great deal of patience in giving school board members, the new Superintendent and others more than enough of an opportunity to take the bull by the horns and address the systemic corruption that has been endemic to the New Rochelle school district for decades, I am not waiting any longer.
Over the coming weeks I am gong to share with readers much of what is in the files collected by the District’s private investigation firm over the past year. I know most of what is in them because I am the one who gave them the names, and the details, and access to my sources.
I met with VRI’s lead investigator Fred Baldino for hours at City Hall. I had numerous follow up email and phone discussions and sent sources directly to him with “breaking” examples of corruption by District employees. In one case, I personally walked him to one hidden location at New Rochelle High School.
I am going to begin to tell the story of what’s been going on behind the scenes in the New Rochelle School District over the past year. It is not a pretty picture.
Since 2008, Talk of the Sound has published many, many reports on arrests and criminal convictions of school district employees, documentation (paper records, audio recordings and video tapes) demonstrating false statements by district administrators and school board members and accounts of all manner of unethical and illegal behavior of persons associated with the City School District of New Rochelle.
Many years ago, before Talk of the Sound was even launched, a former District administrator told me “they are all a bunch of liars, crooks and thieves”, when I asked about the people running the school District. He has yet to be proven wrong.
For those willing to review our past reporting, you will notice that few of these reports relate to school teachers working in New Rochelle. Yet the response of school officials, board members and union leadership has been to consistently demonize me to the public as “anti-teacher” and “anti-union” and, more broadly, “anti-New Rochelle”. I sleep at night knowing that my reporting helps teachers, union members and New Rochelle taxpayers and residents because I am the one person in the City who holds these liars, crooks and thieves to account.
For the record, I have lived in New Rochelle for over 20 years. Before that I went to high school at Iona Prep. My wife has lived in New Rochelle her entire life including four years spent at The College of New Rochelle. We have raised our four children here in New Rochelle, all of whom attended (2 still attend, 2 graduated) school in the New Rochelle public school system. My wife has been a public school teacher almost her entire career including the last 15 years in New Rochelle. She is a member of the teacher’s union.
I am neither anti-teacher nor anti-union.
I am anti-public corruption.
Unable to rebut what I have been publishing on Talk of the Sound about the corruption within the New Rochelle Board of Education, board members and administrators make the issue personal — about their honor and reputation and, by extension, the integrity of the District and the entire public education system in New Rochelle, meaning the integrity of the teachers and staff around them. Any criticism of them is an attack on school teachers and, more broadly, public education. And if you don’t agree then that will end any prospect you might receive special treatment from them later. Most in New Rochelle buckle and go along.
Frank Capra’s film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is one of my favorites. And one of my favorite scenes in the film takes place in the Senate Cloak Room. It sums up nicely the way in which a corrupt person wraps themselves in a facade of rectitude to manipulate those around them into attacking anyone who might expose their corruption. It sums up the leadership in the New Rochelle school system quite nicely, as well.
Senator Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) is on the Senate floor, filibustering to clear his good name having been accused of corruption by his erstwhile senior colleague and potential Presidential candidate Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) who is widely esteemed but secretly corrupt himself. Smith’s father, a newspaper editor and Paine’s closest friend early in his career, was assassinated by corporate interests opposed by the newspaper. Smith idolizes Paine and devastated when he learns the truth about this hero.
Senator Paine confronts Smith and warns him not to get involved in one of Paine’s corrupt deals.
“Now, when that deficiency bill comes up in the Senate tomorrow, you stay away from it. Don’t say a word. Great powers are behind it, and they’ll destroy you before you can even get started. For your own sake, Jeff, and for the sake of my friendship with your father, please, don’t say a word.”
Smith ignores the warning, proceeds, and soon finds himself under the wheel of “the machine”; he is driven from the Senate in tears after Paine perjures himself to paint Smith as a despicable fraud who exploited the good will of children all over America.
Smith ultimately returns to the Senate, gets the floor and holds it for hours with what the media calls a filibuster for the ages, one that begins to sway the other Senators. This leads to the confrontation in the cloak room between Senator Paine and his Senate colleagues.
SENATOR 1: I’ve seen filibustering but…
AGNEW: Ah, Smith can’t go on, it’s ridiculous.
SENATOR 2: Henry, we’ve got to get this man off the floor.
PRESIDENT OF THE SENATE: Boys, as long as Mr. Smith holds that floor legitimately he’s gonna continue to hold it. If you ask me, that young fella is making a whole lotta sense.
PAINE: Sense? You call blackmail “sense”, Henry?
MARTIN: Now look, Joe, I didn’t like this boy from the beginning. But most of us feel that no man who wasn’t sincere could stage a fight like this, against these impossible odds.
PAINE: Well, I’m very glad to know that Martin. After twenty years work with you fellas I am very glad to know that your ready to take his word against mine. That’s fine.
MARTIN: Oh, ridiculous.
PAINE: Oh yes, that’s what it means. If he is just that much right then I am wrong.
SENATOR 3: Joe, listen. Can’t we work out some deal to pull that Willet Dam out and let the Deficiency Bill go through?
PAINE: It isn’t a question of Willet Dam. It’s a question of my honor an reputation. And the integrity of the Committee on Privileges and Elections. The integrity of the Senate itself. If you want to throw out Section 40, go ahead. I’ll resign, we’ll have the whole thing over with.
SENATORS: Wait a minute.
SENATOR 4: Wait, wait, wait a minute. This is a lot of nonsense. Joe is right. A deal is impossible. We’ve go to go on as we’ve been doing and break him. Keep him talking, no relief, maintain a quorum in relays. Is that how you feel, John?
JOHN: For once I agree with you. Gentlemen, it’s time to relieve the men on the floor.
Unable to rebut what Smith is saying on the Senate floor about the corrupt Willet Dam project, Paine makes the issue personal — his honor, his reputation and, by extension, the integrity of the Senate, meaning the integrity of the men around him. And then the kicker — if they don’t go along with him he will resign his Senate seat ending any prospect he will become President and reward them later. They buckle and go along.
In the end, it is Paine who breaks.
Having orchestrated a smear campaign against Smith in his home state, Paine’s political boss, Jim Taylor, arranges for thousands of telegrams condemning Smith to be sent to Washington. Paine confronts Smith with the telegrams based on the Taylor Machine propaganda.
PAINE: Mr. President. Will the Senator yield for a question?
PRESIDENT: Will Senator Smith yield to his colleague?
JEFFERSON: I yield for a question.
PAINE: The Senator has said repeatedly that he is speaking to the people of his state. He has been waiting, as he so fancifully puts it, for them to come marching here in droves. Would the gentleman be interested in knowing what those people have to say?
SAUNDERS: Here it comes, Diz.
JEFFERSON: Yes, sir. You bet I would.
PAINE: Mr. President. Have I permission to bring into this chamber evidence of the response from my state?
MR. PRESIDENT: Is there objection? You may proceed, Senator.
SENATOR: Come on boys. On your feet. All of you.
SAUNDERS: I can’t stand it, Diz. I can’t stand to see him hurt like this.
JOURNALIST: Public opinion-made to order.
DIZ: Yeah, Taylor-made.
PAINE: There it is. There’s the gentleman’s answer. Telegrams. Fifty thousand of them. Demanding that he yield this floor. I invite the Senate to read them. I invite my colleague to read them. The people’s answer to Mr. Jefferson Smith.
SAUNDERS: Stop Jeff! Stop!
Exhausted from hours on his feet, Smith pours through the telegrams in shock but slowly recovers, enough for one last raspy appeal. He leans in and confronts Paine, face-to-face.
JEFFERSON: I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don’t know about lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for. And he fought for them once. For the only reason any man ever fights for them. Because of just one plain, simple rule. Love thy neighbor. And in this world today, full of hatred, a man who knows that one rule has a great trust. You know that rule Mr. Paine. And I loved you for it just as my father did. And you know that you fight for the lost causes harder than any for any others. Yes, you even die for them. Like a man we both knew, Mr. Paine. You think I’m licked. You all think I’m licked. Well I’m not licked and I’m gonna stay right here and fight for this lost cause. Even if this room gets filled with lies like these. And the Taylor’s and all their armies come marching into this place. Somebody’ll listen to me. Some…
SAUNDERS: Oh, Jeff.
SENATOR: He’s okay. He just fainted.
Paine runs off the Senate floor, back to the cloak room. A gun shot is heard. Paine has attempted to kill himself. A struggle with other Senators ensues but Paine breaks free and back on to the Senate floor.
PAINE: Let me go.
SENATOR: What’s the matter?
PAINE: I’m not fit to be a Senator. I’m not fit to live. It’s for me. It’s for me, not him. Willet Dam is a fraud. It’s a crime against the people who sent me here. And I committed it. Every word that boy said is the truth. Every word about Taylor, and me and graft. And the rotten political corruption in my state. Every word of it is true. I’m not fit for office. I’m not fit for any place of honor or trust.
SENATORS: No. No.
PAINE: It’s for me. It’s for me.
SAUNDERS: Hooray, we did it.
DIZ: …I’ve got to…I’ve got to write this story..
MR. PRESIDENT: Order gentlemen. Please.
SAUNDERS: Hooray, he did it!
DIZ: Let go of me.
If only life were like the movies, wouldn’t life be grand?
Like Mr. Smith’s Western State, the leadership of the New Rochelle Board of Education is fundamentally corrupt. I say fundamentally because they are all a party to the corruption in one way or another; they are either direct beneficiaries, indirect participants, willing to turn a blind eye or useful idiots.
And yet for one brief shining moment, the New Rochelle school system found itself helmed by one of the few people with real personal integrity in the leadership team, Dr. Jeffrey Korostoff.
Over the years, I got to know Dr. Korostoff in his role as Assistant Superintendent where his primary responsibility was curriculum development and administering the elementary school and middle schools. We did not talk much about the corruption in the District because his role left him out of the area of focus in my reporting. From time to time, however, I would mention some story of corruption that I had reported on which mostly left him bemused and skeptical. He later told me that when I would tell him stories like these he would think to himself “it can’t be that bad”.
There has been a rumor going around, mostly spread by Schools Superintendent Dr. Brian Osborne and FUSE President Martin Daly, that Jeff Korostoff was my “source” for much of what I knew about what was going on in New Rochelle schools. Anyone who knows Jeff knows that this is absurd. But let me correct Osborne and Daly, Jeff Korostoff was not my source — I was his.
After years of attempting to work through the board to effect change — and running twice unsuccessfully for school board member myself – I made a decision in May of 2013. I gave up on that route. It became apparent that board members like David Lacher, Dee Polow, Rachel Relkin, Chrisanne Petrone and Naomi Brickel, while willing to pay lip service to addressing corruption were, in the end, feckless, lacking the courage or will to take on corruption. Jeffrey Hastie talked a good game but was unable to deliver results. As for rest — Mary Jane Reddington, Liane Merchant, Valerie Orellana, Quay watkins, Pam Davis, Sal Fernandez and others who came and went over the years — they did not even try; in fact, quite the opposite.
Over time Talk of the Sound demonstrated through the publication of District records that then-President David Lacher was actively engaged in corruption — conspiring with Assistant Superintendent for Business & Administration John Quinn to misappropriate $13,500 of taxpayer money to pay for Lacher’s personal medical insurance. In most any other school district, Lacher should have been removed from the board and criminally prosecuted. Lacher, an attorney, should be disbarred. In New Rochelle he was allowed to serve out his term as Board President and remains today on the school board as its esteemed “senior member”.
Current Board President Lianne Merchant, who was caught red-handed using her board position to settle a personal political score with another board member, is a partner in a corporate entity that owns a building in downtown New Rochelle that has not once paid school taxes since the building was acquired several years ago.
Both Lacher and Merchant made false statements to District auditors in their annual disclosure filings in which they falsely claimed they had no outstanding debts, directly or indirectly, to the school district.
At least two board members, Dr. Pam Davis and Dr. Salvatore Fernandez, appear to have perjured themselves in sworn statements made in filing their petitions to get on the school board ballots in 2013 and 2014, respectively. False statements made by Fernandez and another candidate for school board, Rick Monzon, are currently under investigation by the Counsel’s Office of the New York State Education Commssioner in Albany, NY.
Don’t hold your breath expecting justice from NYSED, which is as corrupt, if not more so, than the New Rochelle Board of Education, if that’s possible.
Over the years, Talk of the Sound has brought numerous corruption issues to the attention of NYSED. Officials there either did nothing or actively subverted our reporting by contacting officials in the City School District of New Rochelle to warn them of our reporting.
One particularly egregious example was our efforts to report on illegal asbestos handling and removal at Davis School. Asked for information about rules for how schools must handle asbestos in school buildings, some unknown person in Albany contacted John Gallagher, former Director of Buildings and Grounds, to give him a heads up. An attempted cover up began immediately, one that came to include Gallagher, John Quinn, David Lacher and the District’s attorney, Jeff Kehl. Ultimately, another state agency, the Department of Labor did conduct an investigation and confirmed our reporting. The District and its contractors were fined, one contractor involved was found to have a forged license for handling asbestos.
Freddie Dean Smith, a convicted felon with a lengthy criminal record and former Assistant Superintendent in New Rochelle, was granted an administrative license by NYSED while he was then on probation after a felony conviction for endangering a police officer in Virginia and while awaiting sentencing on two separate sex crimes in South Carolina (he followed women around in stores with his penis hanging out of his pants while he masturbated). He was convicted on both charges in June 2003, a month after he began work as Principal at the Post Road Elementary School in White Plains. A year after Talk of the Sound first reported on Smith’s criminal record, he remains licensed as an administrator by NYSED and is free to take an administrative position with any public school district in New York. NYSED has refused our requests and those of Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins to explain why Smith still had a license — and how he obtained one in the first place.
If you have convicted felons in the Superintendent’s cabinet and liars and thieves on the school board, why should anyone be surprised that corruption is rampant elsewhere in the District?
Despite the efforts by these scoundrels to deflect their exposure by Talk of the Sound into a supposed attack on teachers —- right up there with attacking baseball, motherhood and apple pie — the corruption we have reported on has absolutely nothing to do with teachers. Talk of the Sound has not published a single story accusing a school teacher of corruption.
The corruption in New Rochelle schools which we have been reporting exists almost entirely within the District’s Central Office at City Hall, all under the purview of the Superintendent Level and the School Board.
- Human Resources
- Buildings & Grounds
This corruption is widely known in New Rochelle and goes back decades. It is systemic. It is generational.
And it has become abundantly clear that there is no force within New Rochelle with the wit, intelligence, desire or determination to root out and eliminate the corruption.
The Westchester County District Attorney’s office is largely a political organization and largely useless when it comes to public corruption cases. The attorney who runs the Public Integrity Bureau is Brian Conway, who moonlights as a professional musician. Appropriately, he plays the fiddle because he spends most of his day fiddling while the fires of public corruption in Westchester burn. Conway has demonstrated time and again that he is only willing to pursue cases that are not just spoon-fed to him but force-fed; and then refusing to work to flip suspects to catch the bigger fish. Anyone recall Richard Fevang? Vito Costa? There are others.
The only hope for New Rochelle is the U.S. Department of Justice.
Preet Bharara is the one person in New York with the courage, conviction and means to expose and end the corruption in New Rochelle. Unfortunately, he has been busy dealing with corruption in Albany. Maybe he can spare a few folks for a long hard look at New Rochelle.
There is not much to be said for the people of New Rochelle either. About 5% of them vote in school board elections and appear content with the status quo — or at least not bothered enough to do something about it.
There are some folks in New Rochelle who do care and have been willing to do something about it but most often they give up or are co-opted by the machine. Those that persist are demonized or dismissed or mocked.
Most of New Rochelle is like the Senators in the cloak room. With one breath they say, “If you ask me, that young fella is making a whole lotta sense” and in another “We’ve go to go on as we’ve been doing and break him.”.
They know better but go along to get along.
How else to explain, the apparent indifference to our reports of an administrator raping students in his office and the District’s attempt to cover up the history of complaints made about him before he was finally exposed by Talk of the Sound and eventually arrested by the New Rochelle police? Or security guards having sex with students? Or dozens of District employees transmitting a nude image of a middle school student amongst themselves? Or an employee battering three college kids senseless in the middle of downtown New Rochelle? Or a drug-addled employee arrested for disorderly conduct and then arrested again for stripping naked in his jail cell and masturbating?. This is to just name a few.
New Rochelle has security guards caught shoplifting at ShopRite, lying on their civil service applications in order to get jobs reserved for New Rochelle residents, one showing up drunk at the high school on multiple occasions, one showing up drunk to work security at a football game after having been arrested for driving drunk. This is not to mention security guards sleeping on the job, watching movies on portable TV sets on the job, being AWOL and worse.
How about millions of dollars in no-bid contracts handed out for maintenance work? How about $5,000 to paint a flag pole that costs $4,000 to replace with a new one? How about $200,000 in a no bid contract to make the Planetarium at the New Rochelle High School compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and then accepting a ramp from the contractor that violated the ADA.
How about a Director of Special Education who has repeatedly lied about why two wheel-chair bound students were left behind during an evacuation of the building? How about a head of transportation arrested for drunk driving after crashing into three parked cars and flipping her own vehicle? How about an attempt by an Assistant Superintendent to place outside consultants on the District payroll in order to make them eligible for a state pension?
Regular readers of Talk of the Sound know about these stories and many more.
These stories are all true, all documented, often with the District’s own records obtained under Freedom of Information requests. Records were mostly obtained by third-parties for Talk of the Sound because for five years, from 2009 to 2004, the District illegally denied FOIL requests made by Talk of the Sound, something the District finally admitted a year ago.
What readers need to understand is that in New Rochelle there is a cadre of people who feel entitled to steal everything that is not nailed down — and then steal the nails.
Does that mean everyone working for the New Rochelle Board of Education is a liar, a theif or a crook? No.
For every John Quinn, John Gallagher, Jimmy Bonanno, David Lacher, Don Connetta, Liane Merchant, Yvette Goorevitch, Richard Organisciak, Freddie Dean Smith, Jose Martinez, Vito Costa, Jeff Kehl, Chrisanne Petrone, or Pam Davis, there are hundreds of honest hard-working employees who succeed in spite of these people and their cronies. There are many wonderful people working in school security, teaching classes, working as aides, supporting the pedagogical staff, running school buildings. These people are among the greatest victims of the culture of corruption in the New Rochelle schools because they have to deal with it every day.
The most oft-heard refrain I hear from the many hard-working, honest people employed by the City School District of New Rochelle is how they just want to keep their head down, do their job and not get dragged into the problems. Honest people working for the district, and parents, and taxpayers mostly live in fear of the corrupt people in the District. Who can blame them?
Yet, the old adage was never more true than it is in New Rochelle, “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for men (and woman) of good will to do nothing”.
It takes a certain personality — in my case, a stubborn Irish temperament — and a certain belief that “truth will out” to take on the systemic rot and corruption. And certainly I have paid a price for that. Over the past seven years I have received death threats, had nails driven into my tires (7 times), had various things thrown at my house, had my family threatened, have had multiple phony criminal complaints filed against me, been arrested once, had two lawsuits brought against me, and been subject to all manner of defamatory abuse. My wife has paid a price too; one of the most educated, talented people working for the district, she has been banished to work at an out-of-district school, on the district payroll, ever since I began publishing Talk of the Sound.
And through it all I have not only continued to publish but have expanded coverage, grown the web site and added new ways to read out stories so that a story on Talk of the Sound reaches more than 10,000 people directly and many more via social media and other web sites. We have had over 3 million readers since 2008.
And yet I have been holding something important back.
In the fall of 2013, when Jeff Korostoff was named interim-Superintendent, I nearly fell out of my chair.
After years of the obdurate fool, Richard Organisciak, there was actually someone in charge who would listen and take seriously the stories of corruption and malfeasance, only some of which I published on Talk of the Sound.
Korostoff agreed to two requests that I made once he took office. One, to place Talk of the Sound on the press list for the District so we could get direct access to press releases and media availabilities to cover news within the District. Two, reverse the long-standing (and illegal) policy to deny FOIL requests by Talk of the Sound.
That second decision set off a chain-reaction of events which I am now going to begin reporting for the first time.
For my first FOIL request under the new, lawful policy, I chose to request a document that was sure to be readily available because it had been discussed often, and publicly over the past year — the Aramark contract that resulted from the District putting the work out to bid in 2013 for the first time in decades. This was a document, I expected, would be sitting on top of John Quinn’s desk. It wasn’t. In fact, after many months of discussion, with Quinn even claiming to have gone back to his office to retrieve the contract so he could recite from to the board and then turning pages of what he purported to be the contract, Quinn was claiming to have difficulty locating the contract.
In parallel to this, I had asked a third-party to make a FOIL request for medical insurance records for David Lacher (the request began several months before Korostoff changed the policy to allow me to make direct requests). The District repeatedly stonewalled this request. Even when Korostoff personally requested the information, it was not provided to him.
Korostoff was puzzled. I was not. He is a good-hearted person who wants to believe people and always assumes the best. I am a skeptic and know from long experience that many people in the District will lie about what they had for breakfast just for the sake of not telling the truth.
By March of 2014, Korostoff learned the truth — that there was no Aramark contract and that there were records for Lacher’s medical insurance, and that they showed Lacher owed large amounts of money and had been ignoring repeated demands for payment. In other words, the people around him were lying to him.
And this point, Korostoff became more open to the idea that the stories I had been publishing on Talk of the Sound might actually be true. I began to bring him more stories, more records and eventually, people who had been sources for some of my reporting. Other people began telling more stories. It soon became apparent to Korostoff that there was a rather large problem and that something needed to be done.
Korostoff worked hard to address the issue. He took an aggressive position on corruption in his 2014-15 Budget Message. He engaged the school board and responded to the public at board meetings.
At one point he asked me what I thought should be done.
My recommendation was to call Brian Conway at the DA’s office, tell him that he was the interim-Superintendent in New Rochelle, that he believed there were some corruption issues in New Rochelle and that he (Korostoff) would be willing to cooperate with the DA.
As I expected, Conway told Korostoff to do the work himself. Specifically, Conway told Korostoff to hire a Private Investigation firm and build files on three people. Conway would then review the files and determine whether to open a case file at the DA’s office and proceed from there.
Korostoff hired Vigilant Resources International (“VRI”) in the Spring of 2014, the same firm that had conducted a security audit for the District after the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut. VRI is a top-flight firm.
Concurrent with this, Korostoff also hired Capital Projects Consulting to evaluate a series of stories published on Talk of the Sound about corruption involving John Gallagher, John Quinn, people working under both of them and several outside contractors. The projects included work done painting a flag pole at Trinity School, ADA compliance work at the Planetarium at New Rochelle High School, masonry work done at Columbus School and others. Their report verified our reporting.
Over the summer and into the fall, VRI went on to produce what I was told were 22 files — not three. VRI investigators met with senior school officials including Schools Superintendent Dr. Brian Osborne, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Jeffrey Korostoff, Assistant to the Superintendent for Human Resources Joe Williams and Jeffrey Kehl, the attorney for the District, to present their findings.
A decision was made not to refer any of the findings by VRI to the District Attorney. This decision was communicated to the New Rochelle Board of Education in December, 2014. Three points were made to justify not making any criminal referrals: (1) the files did not contain enough evidence to sustain a positive decision in a civil service hearing in the event of an appeal – except in 2 cases, Bonanno and Raffa; (2) any arrests would create negative headlines for the District; (3) any arrests would validate the reporting of Talk of the Sound.
Entirely left out of the discussion was the original purpose of hiring VRI — to turn over three files to the District Attorney to kickstart an investigation by the DA. Instead, the District adopted an entirely new standard so that they would do nothing unless they could be certain of winning a civil service case. In other words, no one arrested, no one held to account under criminal statutes, no restitution for stolen funds.
The amount of taxpayer money stolen from the District amounts to millions of dollars over the past several years.
This epic post is just the opening salvo. There is a lot to cover and trying to sort out where to begin has caused me to delay in reporting what I know. So, I am going to stop worry about that and just tell readers what I know as best I can, as quickly as can, covering as much as I can.
Get ready, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.