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Sunday, December 28, 2008

NYC Deputy Chancellor Christorpher Cerf in Trouble

December 5, 2008
Schools Official Is Chided About Soliciting Donation

New York City investigators have found that a deputy schools chancellor solicited charitable contributions from executives of Edison Schools, an Education Department vendor for whom he once worked.

The city’s Conflicts of Interest Board closed the matter without taking action against the deputy chancellor, Christopher Cerf. But in a letter to Mr. Cerf, the board’s chairman, Steven B. Rosenfeld, said that Mr. Cerf had used his city position to benefit the Darrow Foundation, a nonprofit group on whose board he sits. The letter also provided a “formal reminder of the importance of strict compliance with the city’s conflicts of interest law.”

Mr. Rosenfeld’s letter referred Mr. Cerf to several sections of the City Charter. One of them states that public servants should not attempt to use their positions to obtain privileges for themselves “or any person or firm associated” with them. Another says that public servants should not solicit charitable donations from “persons or firms likely to come before the officials’ agencies or be affected by their official actions.”

“In this instance, it appears that you were aware that Edison Schools was likely to come before the D.O.E. and/or to be affected by your official actions on behalf of the D.O.E.,” Mr. Rosenfeld said in the letter.

Mr. Cerf was president of Edison before joining the Education Department, first as a consultant, then, in December 2006, as a deputy chancellor. Mr. Cerf’s relationship with the company, now called EdisonLearning, first made headlines in February 2007, when he assured a citywide parents’ group that he had “zero” financial interest in Edison. He later acknowledged that he had relinquished his equity stake in the company only the day before.

After that statement, Richard J. Condon, the special commissioner of investigation for the city school system, began investigating Mr. Cerf’s ties to Edison. His findings were sent to Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein on Aug. 22, 2007. Like most of Mr. Condon’s findings that do not result in arrests, they were not made public. Mr. Condon declined to comment; his report was released to The New York Times under the Freedom of Information Law.

According to the report, Mr. Cerf sent an e-mail message to an official with Edison or Liberty Partners, its majority owner, on Feb. 7, 2007. In that message, he relinquished “any and all equity interest” in Edison and solicited the donation, writing, “I would be most grateful if you were to make, entirely at your discretion, a charitable contribution to the Darrow Foundation in recognition of this voluntary relinquishment of this interest.”

In an interview on Thursday, Mr. Cerf emphasized that the Conflicts of Interest Board had taken no action against him. He provided a copy of the board’s letter, which was issued to him on Oct. 3, 2007.

In the interview, Mr. Cerf said that he had written the e-mail message to an official at Liberty Partners whom he knew and with whom he shared an interest in the outdoors, but he would not name the official. The Darrow Foundation, which is based in Maine, supports wilderness canoeing programs and outdoor education for young people.

“If you’re asking me do I have any regrets, I will tell you absolutely not,” Mr. Cerf said. “I did absolutely what I was supposed to do. I disclosed everything; the Conflicts of Interest Board gave it the back of its hand.”

“Raising money for a not for profit, tell me, what’s wrong with that?” he added.

“There is nothing here other than an investigation that exonerated me. The only real story here is that I was put through a rather tortuous experience.”

Officials said Edison or its subsidiaries had three contracts with the department, one of which has expired. Mr. Cerf has recused himself from all matters relating to the company.

According to Mr. Condon’s report, the chairman and chief executive of Liberty Partners, did pledge to make a $60,000 donation, but did not pay it because Mr. Cerf, after being questioned by investigators, withdrew his request.

In a statement released on Thursday, Mr. Klein said: “When this case was closed more than a year ago, the Conflict of Interest Board found that no action was required. I consider this matter closed and look forward to continuing my work with Chris, who has made, and continues to make, an enormous contribution to our city and our schoolchildren.”

Schools big eyed by conflict board
Thursday, December 4th 2008

Deputy Schools Chancellor Christopher Cerf violated city conflict-of-interest law by soliciting a $60,000 charitable contribution from executives of his former firm while the company did business with the school system.

Cerf asked executives from Edison Schools to give the money to a nonprofit wilderness program on whose board of directors he sat, a probe conducted by Richard Condon, the special commissioner for school investigations, found.

After investigators questioned him about the propriety of the donation, Cerf then sent an e-mail to the executives saying: "I have now concluded that it would be the better course not to proceed with the contribution."

Condon, who is never shy about announcing investigations of low-level school employees, then sent an 11-page report on Cerf to Chancellor Joel Klein in August 2007, but never made it public.

The Daily News obtained a heavily redacted copy of the report last week.

The report also examined other post-employment financial ties between Cerf and Edison, the controversial for-profit company whose subsidiary, Newton Learning Centers, runs tutorial programs at various city schools.

Cerf relinquished 6,000 shares of Edison stock in February 2007, only hours before he was to be questioned about his ties to Edison by the DOE's parent advisory council, Condon concluded. Cerf also renounced any interest in a 10-year consulting contract with another Edison-connected firm - a contract that could have been worth $2.5 million.

Cerf and his lawyers claimed in two interviews with Condon's investigators the stock was virtually worthless, and that he had never signed the consulting contract so it was not "operational." They also noted Cerf had recused himself from any Edison dealings with the city's schools.

In October 2007, the city's Conflict of Interest Board board issued a confidential letter admonishing Cerf for using his city position to benefit the wilderness group.

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

The board recommended no further disciplinary action but it reminded Cerf that such violations "can result in civil fines of up to $10,000 ... and other penalties."

Cerf only agreed to release the COIB letter after The News raised questions about the matter Thursday, but he declined to talk on the record about its findings.

So what does Klein have to say about this?

"When this case was closed more than a year ago, the Conflict of Interest Board found that no action was required," Klein said through a spokesman.

"I consider this matter closed and look forward to continuing my work with Chris, who has made, and continues to make, an enormous contribution to our city and our schoolchildren."

Heated debate at New School discussion of city schools control


Friday, March 7th 2008, 3:06 PM

A discussion about who should control the city schools quickly heated up Thursday when a member of the state Board of Regents accused an education official of embodying the "A-word."

"When I say the 'A-word,' I mean there is an arrogance here," Regent Merryl Tisch thundered in a public scolding of Deputy Chancellor Chris Cerf.

The two were panelists in a New School discussion on whether a law authorizing mayoral control of the schools should be renewed after it expires next year.

Cerf, a controversial official who once led the for-profit Edison Schools, had just finished boasting that the city's graduation rate had reached an unprecedented 60%. That statistic is disputed by state officials, who calculate graduation rate differently and say the city's rate is 50%. The city and state had agreed last year to use the lower number.

"I don't want to be rude here," Tisch said after Cerfspoke. "But one of the reasons people start to question the authority of mayoral control is because of the 'A-word.'...There is an arrogance to how you report data, control data and how you report statistics," Tisch said, adding that even 50% is "teetering on telling the truth."

Tisch is a strong supporter of mayoral control. She voted for the initial proposal that gave Mayor Bloomberg control of schools in 2002 and has cheered his reforms.

But mayoral control was sharply criticized at yesterday's discussion and at City Council hearing on Monday. Before Tisch's rebuke, Assemblyman Alan Maisel, another panelist, said Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein had practiced "the Stalinist method of mayoral control."

Tisch lamented that anger over poor communication had overshadowed the mayor and chancellor's many accomplishments.

"I think the city has a great story to tell about where they came from and where they are," she said. "The problem is that the reason people get angry at us ... is because they don't seem to be able to get a straight story from us."

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