Friday, September 3, 2010

Christie's Big Fat Lie!

Bret Schundler released the following statement on Thursday, which pretty much says Governor Christie told a big fat lie:

"Last Wednesday, while criticizing the Obama Administration during a press conference, the Governor made a statement in support of an argument he was trying to drive home. Unfortunately, the statement was untrue. I had stressed this point to him when he told me what he planned to say, right before the press conference began. I had also discussed the matter at length with his Chief of Staff and his Director of Communications the day before, so they knew the facts of the matter.

On Thursday, the Obama Administration released a video tape that proved the statement was untrue. The Governor was embarrassed. Rather than acknowledge his culpability for the false statement, he fired me – his Commissioner of Education – charging that I had given him and his staff bad information on the point in question. But I had not. I had given them correct information. The Governor’s charge against me is false.

I accept the Governor’s right to fire Commissioners with or without cause. And I have subsequently learned that I made an editing error which contributed to New Jersey not winning a $400 million grant. I could accept being fired for that. But I will not accept being defamed by the Governor for something he knows I did not do. The Governor called me a liar this week. That was the last straw. I have no choice now but to defend my name through this chronology of facts and the attached evidence.

The first fact of note is that we submitted a strong application to the federal government in connection with the United States Department of Education’s Race to The Top grant competition and almost overcame steep odds against us. With hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, states were competing aggressively, and to beat the favorites, New Jersey would have to overcome huge disadvantages in three areas that accounted for a lot of competition points: 1) its lack of union support for proposed reforms; 2) the fact that so much of its reform agenda was in the proposal stage, not already enacted; and 3) its inferior education data‐tracking capabilities.

The Corzine Administration had put money into developing New Jersey’s education data tracking ability, but other states, which had received large federal grants to assist their efforts during the past four years, were way ahead. There is nothing Governor Christie and I could have done in the four‐and‐a‐half months since his inauguration to compensate for the fact.

Governor Corzine had also allowed New Jersey to fall behind the front‐running states when it comes to education reforms already implemented. With these two factors and a lack of union support working against us, we were ecstatic when the grant readers – who loved our vision and proposals for education reform – accepted New Jersey as one of nineteen finalist states.

We have learned that we entered the finals way behind, and the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) asserts Governor Christie is responsible for it. It argues that if Governor Christie had accepted the compromises it worked out with me, New Jersey’s grant application would have won union support, causing New Jersey to enter the final round ranked higher and to ultimately win $400 million for our schools.

Governor Christie responds that the reforms he and I put on the table were precisely those being called for by the Obama Administration, as well as education reformers across the political spectrum, and that the NJEA should have supported the entire package, as proposed, without him having to compromise.

The NJEA and the Governor are both right, of course. But that was water under the bridge as my Education Department team and I prepared to meet with grant reviewers in Washington – another demanding task in what had already been a grueling work effort.

We went through trial interviews where we practiced what to say to the grant reviewers. I would directly address the three weaknesses I mentioned earlier through reinforcing the arguments we made in our written application.

We also practiced what not to say. The rules governing the grant competition were explicit: you were NOT to present new information during the interview. You were only to reinforce points already made in the paper application submitted on the due‐date.

During the interview, my team and I made our points well. New Jersey’s post‐interview score increased by 34 points. That’s a bigger increase than any other state received, not only in this June round of the competition, but also in the January round. Note that this point gain is almost seven times as great as the points we lost through my editing error. If we hadn’t done such a good job, no one would be speaking about the error because the small number of points lost would not have mattered.

Mid‐way through the one‐hour question and answer period, however, a question was asked that caught us off guard. A reviewer asked, “We were unable to find in the application the funding levels – um, school education funding levels specifically for the years 2008 and 2009 as requested in the application. Can you explain how or where this information was presented in the application?”

My teammates and I were taken aback. How could the information not be there? We began searching for the information to see if the application page with it was out of order. The reviewer said, “We can come back to that if someone can take a look.” I said, “That would be helpful,” and as two of my team members continued the search, the reviewers moved on to other questions.

At the end of the question and answer period, a reviewer asked, “And did you have any luck with the financial data?”

One of my Assistant Commissioners responded, “No,” and a moment later added, “We all searched.” I remember one of the reviewers saying something like, “I hope you feel we gave you a fair opportunity to find the page with the information,” and me responding that they did and adding that we did meet the education spending criterion. But that exchange is not on the videotape of the one‐hour Q & A. It’s clear to me now that it must have happened three minutes later when, the hour over, we and the reviewers stood up, shook hands, and exchanged niceties.

We walked out of that interview two weeks ago feeling good about our presentation. We knew the odds were against us, but we thought we had a chance. When the final results were announced last Tuesday, we were crestfallen: New Jersey had missed winning by just three points. After we poured over the Fed’s scoring break‐down, we felt better. In the scoring category where the teacher union’s endorsement matters, we lost 20 fewer points than the Corzine Administration had.

Why? Because we had gotten so many other stakeholders on board and had convinced reviewers we would be able to implement our reforms anyway. Meanwhile, though many of our reforms were still just in the proposal or piloting stage, the reviewers liked them so much they still gave us a lot of points for them. In fact, while possessing the same set of disadvantages, our June application scored 51 points higher than had Governor Corzine’s in January.

Early that afternoon, an email arrived from Maria Comella, Governor Christie’s Communications Director. Maria sought a response to questions she had been emailed by Lisa Fleisher, a Star‐Ledger reporter. The reporter quoted grant reviewers who said New Jersey lost five points because of missing information. “Did the state realize this supposed error in advance and try to fix?” the reporter asked.

I wrote an email back to Maria that confirmed the reviewers’ accounts and answered the reporter’s question directly: “We did not, as the reviewers note, provide Fiscal Year 2008 budget data…We did not realize the error in advance, and the competition rules did not permit fixing of the error post‐facto.”

Maria emailed me another question: “When did we realize the error? Did we not notify [US]DOE of the error before we did our in‐person presentation?”

I emailed back: “We didn’t let the [US]DOE know we had made the error because we didn’t know we had made it – not until a panelist asked us about the Fiscal Year 2008 budget data. When we were asked about it, we checked our appendices. All we could do was confirm that we had erred – the 2008 data was not included.”

I believe speaking the truth is a wonderful policy. The truth in this case is that we made a mistake when putting together our application. In no way did I try to spin things otherwise.

A little while later, the Governor’s Chief of Staff, Rich Bagger, called me with Maria Comella on the speakerphone with him. He asked whether we had perhaps tried to submit the missing information to the USDOE after our interview? No, I responded; the competition rules did not permit the provision of new information.

The rules of the grant competition were inflexible. Information provided after the application’s due‐date – whether leading up to, during, or after our interview with grant reviewers – would not have been accepted. I told Rich that no one on our team could provide the missing numbers from memory, and made clear that we couldn’t produce the information from any other papers we had with us. Even if we could, I reinforced, we would not have gotten points. We had only one way to redeem the five points at stake: find the missing information somewhere in the application papers we had submitted.

But we could not find the missing information in the application. It was not there. Rich then asked me if we had said anything about the missing information. I said I thought at some point a reviewer asked me whether they had given us a fair opportunity to find the missing information, and I said yes, and added, as an aside, that we did meet the grant’s education spending criterion.

After Rich had asked all his questions, Maria ended the conversation with the words, “Well, it was a mistake, then.” With those words she was essentially communicating, as I had in my emails to her, that the only way to accurately sum up for the press what had happened was to admit my team made an error on the application and leave it at that. But that idea, that you simply admit making a mistake, obviously didn’t sit well with the Governor because the next morning, while I was at my office, I received a phone call from him.

The Governor was on speakerphone and Rich Bagger was with him. The Governor said he was angry about the missing information in our grant application, but that no one was going to lose their job over it. He said he was about to do a press conference about the matter, and that he believed it is always better to be on offense than defense, so he would accept responsibility for the error, and then go on offense against the Obama Administration. He was going to try to make the story about their picayune rules. He was going to say that I gave the reviewers the missing information, but the Obama Administration refused to give us the points we deserved, and that this showed they put bureaucratic rules above meaningful education reform.

I interrupted and told him not to claim that I had provided the missing numbers to our grant reviewers. I stressed that I did NOT provide the missing information; I did not have it. Asked, by Rich I think, about commenting that we met the criterion, I confirmed it. I also said the United States Department of Education might still have one hundred million dollars left over in its Race to The Top account, and that we should ask Secretary of Education Duncan to give it to New Jersey as the first‐runner‐up state: the state next in line for funding. The Governor said he liked that idea and that I should draft a letter to Secretary Duncan. Finally, somewhere in the conversation, I said we would review ways to improve our grant preparation process so we never again make a similar error.

I was not able to watch the Governor’s press conference because I had a meeting with Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan, the Chairman of the Assembly Education Committee. But later that afternoon, while I was working on the letter to Secretary Duncan requested by the Governor, I saw a transcript of the press conference on the web. Here is some of what Governor Christie said:

“…when we went in for the personal interview, two weeks before the decision was made, they raised the issue with us. Commissioner Schundler gave them the ‘08 & ‘09 numbers…”

“During that interview this issue was raised and Commissioner Schundler gave them, in the interview, the numbers for ’08 – ’09 because the mistake was raised.”

I don’t know if it was intentional, but in these two instances, the Governor said precisely what I told him NOT to say. I also knew it was going to create a problem – if for no other reason than because the grant interview was videotaped. When the videotape came out, the news story would no longer be about Obama’s picayune rules; it would be about the Governor’s misstatements.

I emailed Rich Bagger a draft of the letter I was writing to Secretary Duncan, and asked Rich if he wanted any changes. My letter had a sentence that read as follows:

Our application did not include one sentence in Section (F)(1)(i) which had appeared in previous drafts: a sentence establishing that New Jersey increased its spending on education as a percentage of total state revenues from 36.9% in 2008 to 39.6.% in 2009 (a fact that we had noted in New Jersey’s Round 1 application).

Rich emailed me back his edited version of the letter. He made a change to this sentence. It now read this way:

Our application did not include documentation in Section (F)(1)(i) establishing that New Jersey increased its spending on education as a percentage of total state revenues from 36.9% in 2008 to 39.6.% in 2009 (a fact that demonstrated in New Jersey’s Round 1 application and confirmed verbally during our August 11th presentation).

Rich’s edit had me saying that I gave the reviewers the missing numbers. That raised red flags with me. Rich knew I had not given numbers to the reviewers. He had learned about it from the email I sent to Maria Comella early Tuesday afternoon. He knew about it from the conversation I had with him and Maria later that afternoon. And he knew about it from my Wednesday morning conversation with the Governor, during which Rich was on the speakerphone too. My point had been clear: I did NOT give any numbers to the reviewers. And yet Rich wanted me to say that I had – and in a letter to the United States Secretary of Education, no less.

I now feared I was being set up. Rich was with the Governor when he gave his press conference. He probably cringed when the Governor misspoke, just as I did when I read the transcript. The Governor’s misstatement could easily become an embarrassment. I feared they were setting me up as a scapegoat.

I spoke with Rich on the phone and told him I would not accept his edits. I had not given the missing numbers to the reviewers and I would not say that I had. Rich said he would rework the sentence and later emailed me an edited letter that I found acceptable. The key sentences read:

Our application did not include documentation in Section (F)(1)(i) establishing that New Jersey increased its spending on education as a percentage of total state revenues from 36.9% in 2008 to 39.6.% in 2009 (a fact that was demonstrated in New Jersey’s Round 1 application). In addition, it was confirmed verbally during our August 11 presentation that New Jersey satisfied this criteria.

I might have written them differently, but these sentences were acceptable to me. They don’t have me claiming that I provided the missing numbers to the reviewers. They just have me saying that New Jersey meets the education spending criterion that relates to the points at stake. I signed the letter and sent it off to Secretary Duncan.

Earlier, I mentioned that my comment about meeting the criterion occurred after the Q & A was over. But I didn’t know that on Wednesday. I was, however, absolutely certain that no one from my team had provided the missing numbers – and the false claim that we had provided numbers, made in Rich’s earlier edit of my letter, had now been removed per my demand.

On Thursday afternoon, the United States Department of Education released the videotape of my team’s interview. It didn’t surprise me. The Governor, in the midst of his attack on the Obama Administration, said things that were false and now the Obama Administration was acting to embarrass the Governor about it.

I came out from an early evening meeting and saw I had an email from Rich Bagger requesting that I call him immediately. I called and he said the Governor was demanding my immediate resignation for having “misled” him about the grant interview.

I responded to Rich that both he and the Governor knew that was not true. Rich didn’t respond to that point (which of course he wouldn’t). Rich then told me the Governor had left for a radio call‐in 5

program and was not available to discuss it, but that it seemed his mind was made up. He said he would call me later that evening, after the radio program was over, to talk more (which he did not). Finally, he said that in the morning I should report to the Governor’s office to discuss “transition issues.”

From my home that evening, I forwarded the Governor a string of emails. My Department of Education team and I had been searching to discover how the application error happened. I had remembered that three months earlier, when I reviewed our draft language for that section of the application, I thought it should include current budget information, not just old budget information.

But I did not remember deleting the old information, and I could not imagine I would have done so, since the question seeks it. I also concluded that if the consultants we hired to put our application together had given me draft text to review, and I edited out critical information, they would have told me when they looked over my edits.

Such an error would also have been caught during the fact‐checking process, I reasoned. Finally, everyone on the team had looked through their emails and computer files, including me, and none of us had indication of how this change came to be made. All we could pinpoint was the date the error occurred – in other words, when the relevant section of our application draft changed. But a string of email messages that went back and forth between our consultants and the Deputy Attorney Generals working on the application provided a possible lead. Those emails suggested to some of us that the mistake may have occurred during the fact‐checking process. Until we actually knew what had happened, I didn’t want to draw premature conclusions, so I had not spoken with the Governor about this.

But now I was being fired, and I figured part of the reason had to be the Governor’s belief DOE made the error, and I was responsible as Commissioner. I decided to let the Governor know that the error may well have occurred during a fact‐checking process that involved two departments – not just the DOE – and sent him the email string we had discovered.

I learned yesterday that one of our consultants finally found in her boxes of papers what we’d been looking for: the answer to the question of how the missing information got dropped from the application. It turns out that I had crossed out the key words while hand‐editing text. I haven’t seen the page with my hand edits, and I don’t know why my error wasn’t caught, but I now feel worse about things than ever. My stupid error contributed to New Jersey not winning $400 million in federal grant funds. If the Governor had given us time to discover this, and then fired me for the error, I would still feel devastated, but I would not feel defamed.

I told the Governor and his staff the truth: I did NOT give the missing budget numbers to the U.S. Department of Education grant reviewers. I spelled this out in my Tuesday emails to Maria Comella. I said it repeatedly during my Tuesday phone conversation with Maria and Rich Bagger. I stressed it during my Wednesday morning phone conversation with the Governor (with Rich Bagger on the speaker phone, who already knew I had not given any numbers to the grant reviewers). And I refused to sign a letter to Secretary Duncan that misrepresented the fact. We’re not talking about a situation where there might be a misunderstanding by the Governor and his team. We’re talking about a point I made again and again, just last week.

Telling the truth is important to me. And the accusation that I misled the Governor to hide a poor interview performance is utter nonsense. I handled the reviewer’s question appropriately and my team and I earned New Jersey a larger point gain from our interview performance than any other state achieved in either of the two rounds of this competition. Finally, I knew that the interview was being videotaped. If you don’t know whether you should believe in my honesty or our effective presentation performance, at least trust in my common sense: there is no way I would lie to the Governor about having provided the ‘08 budget numbers, knowing that such a lie would be brought to light.

I have thought about the possibility that beyond my being a scapegoat for his misstatement, the Governor might be angry at me for not telling him the interview was videotaped. In my defense, I never believed I needed to say, “Governor, stick to the truth, there’s a videotape.” Perhaps I should have.

After all, I may have misremembered by a few minutes precisely when, a few weeks earlier, I had made a comment about New Jersey meeting the grant’s spending criteria. But it’s hard to imagine how, within a matter of minutes, the Governor could forget a point I made to him emphatically.

Perhaps he just accidently misspoke when he said I provided the missing numbers. You know…gotten on a roll and said the wrong thing. But then he would have had to accidently misspeak again, just a few minutes later, when he repeated the same falsehood. The accident thesis seems unlikely…but you draw your own conclusions. The only thing I’m sure of is that the Governor knew I didn’t provide numbers at the grant interview.

I told Governor Christie and his staff that I did not provide the numbers. The documentary evidence backs me up. Reporters should ask the Governor a direct question: “Is it true Bret Schundler told you that he did NOT provide the numbers?” If he says, “No,” ask him for his evidence. If he says, “Yes,” ask him why he made the claim that I provided numbers (remember, twice) during his press conference.

I mentioned that the Governor told me he likes being on offense, not defense. As a former prosecutor, that it is not surprising to me. Prosecutors construct their argument and press it.

In this instance, the argument the Governor wanted to make at his press conference was that New Jersey lost out on $400 million because the Obama Administration has stupid grant competition rules. It would have supported the Governor’s argument if I had, in truth, given the reviewers the missing information, and they just refused to give us points. But that is not what happened. And the Governor already knew that Wednesday morning.

The Governor ignored my correction of his mental script. Whether accidently or on purpose, he went ahead and said what he had wanted to say from the beginning. He shouldn’t have.

Good prosecutors don’t support their argument with claims they know are false. And they don’t charge people that they know are innocent."

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