I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Friday, January 18, 2013

Rhee Lawyers Up

Yesterday, I posted about a story by John Merrow that alleges that a memo exists that likely shows Michelle Rhee was warned about potential widespread cheating in Washington, D.C. early in her tenure as schools chancellor. If it turns out that this memo says what Merrow conjectures it does, it calls into question Rhee's claims of success as a school leader, her diligence in pursuing testing irregularities, her current claim that she fully cooperated with investigators, and the efficacy of the climate she built around high-stakes testing in the district.

The memo was written by a researcher Rhee herself hired. He claims he can't release it without DCPS's permission because it is a "work for hire." And this is where the story turns into a classic case of stonewalling:

Here beginneth our tale of FOIA frustration. Starting in early May of 2012, we submitted FOIAs to DCPS, the DC Inspector General, the Mayor and the US Department of Education. DCPS told us the document did not exist. The DC Inspector General told us he had it but wouldn’t release it, a decision echoed by the US Department of Education’s IG. The Mayor supported DCPS. I have copies of 46 communications on my desk as I write this, but there may have been more. [emphasis mine]
So DCPS says it doesn't exist, but the IG contradicts them. Huh.

Careful readers will recall that Sanford reported to McGoldrick and that he regularly invoiced her for payments. We inferred from this that they probably communicated by email, given that Sanford was in California and McGoldrick in DC. Therefore, on July 3, 2012, we filed a FOIA with DCPS for email communications between the two. We sent ‘reminder’ requests on August 14 and October 1. On October 5 the DCPS FOIA officer, Donna Whitman Russell, wrote to say “We should receive the emails within the next 15 days. We’ll have to review them. And hope to have response in approximately 20 days.” Our November 5, 2012 FedEx letter to her was returned, unopened, with the notation, “moved.” However, Ms. Russell was still on the job as of January 15, 2013.

It’s been over six months, and we have still not received the McGoldrick-Sanford emails. How hard can it be to find email? Or could there be something in the McGoldrick-Sanford communications that DCPS does not want the public to read? [emphasis mine]
It gets worse:

If you have read this far, you must be wondering why we didn’t simply ask McGoldrick or Rhee for the document. I called McGoldrick at her home in California at least a dozen times. I never got anything but her answering machine (including once again this morning). I left messages with a call back number. She hasn’t called.

As for Michelle Rhee, we did ask, but even that story is a bit complicated. It begins with phone calls this past summer from a prominent Washington criminal attorney, Reid Weingarten. Mr. Weingarten indicated that, if we would submit our questions in writing, she would reply in writing.

I responded to Mr. Weingarten’s offer in good faith. In my email dated August 22, 2012, I asked the former Chancellor to release Sanford’s memo. She did not reply.
In that same letter, I asked for a formal sit-down interview for our Frontline film to give her ‘the last word.’ She did not reply. [emphasis mine]
 Wait a minute: the Reid Weingarten?
Reuters is out with an intriguing storythat Goldman Sachs Lloyd Blankfein has hired a prominent defense attorney. Shares of Goldman Sachs sank on the news, and ended the trading day at a 52-week low.

UPDATE: Our Journal colleagues also have confirmed Blankfein hired a defense attorney. Goldman Sachs said Blankfein hired counsel amid a Senate report on events leading up to the financial crisis. Goldman said hiring legal counsel is “common in such situations.”

Here are some nuggets about Blankfein’s attorney, Steptoe & Johnson’s Reid Weingarten, an experienced Washington defense attorney.

Prior clients: Bernie Ebbers, the former WorldCom CEO convicted of securities fraud; Roman Polanski, the film director who has been wanted in the U.S. for decades-old charges involving having sex with a 13-year-old girl; Lauren Stevens, the GlaxoSmithKline attorney cleared of corporate misconduct; Former agriculture secretary Mike Espy, who won acquittal on corruption charges.

Quotable quotes: When Stevens, the Glaxo attorney, was cleared of misconduct by a judge, Weingarten said: ”We did not have a bad five minutes in that courtroom; if it had been a prize fight, they would have stopped it,” Weingarten was quoted in a Wall Street Journal story.

“I feel like I’m in the French Revolution, defending the nobility against the howling mob,” Weingarten told BusinessWeek for a 2002 profile, referring to his corporate clients. “They want to guillotine these people without any evidence.” (He used a similar French Revolution metaphor in a 2005 “Charlie Rose” interview.)

In the 2005 trial of Bernie Ebbers, during cross examination of government witness and former WorldCom CFO Scott Sullivan, Weingarten asked: ”So you looked those 12 people in the eye and lied your head off?” reported the New York Times.

Background: Used to work in the Department of Justice’s public integrity division. Described himself as a ”hard-core child of the ’60s,” according to a 2002BusinessWeek profile. Reportedly friends with Eric Holder, the U.S. Attorney General.
Yes, folks, it's true: Michelle Rhee has hired the lawyer for Bernie Ebbers and Roman Polanski. Ebbers, at the center of one of the biggest fraud cases Wall Street has ever seen. And Polanski, one of the highest-profile celebrity criminal cases in American history.

(BTW, several people have confirmed to me Weingarten is no relation to Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT, the teacher union. It's a funny coincidence, though.)

Here's what I'd really like to know: Merrow says he got phone calls from Weingarten this summer. How did that happen, exactly? Did Weingarten call unsolicited? Was he calling in response to an inquiry made to Rhee? And why did Rhee feel she needed a prominent criminal defense attorney to answer Merrow?

This entire thing is getting stranger and stranger. It's time for the rest of the DC press and national education beat reporters to get in on this story.

Oh, I don't think that's necessary...


Jesse Turner said...

Oh, I bow down to you Jersey Jazzman. Thank you for shedding a light on superwomen. She just might have found some Jersey Kryptonite.
Funny superman never needed a lawyer,

Anonymous said...

JJ, see http://www.pbs.org/ombudsman/2013/01/michelle_rhee_reformer_zealot_both_or_somethi.html

From the article: "After interviewing Cothorne, Frontline also attempted to interview Chancellor Rhee. It is accepted form in journalism for the subject of a program to be given 'the last word,' a final opportunity to respond to what others have said, and we wanted that to be the case in this instance. We negotiated with Rhee's attorney, Reid Weingarten, who insisted on seeing written questions that we would be asking. Frontline submitted a number of written questions, which we will not release because they include references to other allegations not made public. Weingarten had indicated that Rhee would respond in writing and, at the same time, consider an on-camera interview. In fact, she did not respond in any way."

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