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Throwing Light on Dark Corners of N.Y.C.'s Bureaucracy

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NEW YORK--As he looks out the window of his eighth-floor office in Lower West Manhattan, Edward F. Stancik seems keenly aware that somewhere out there, bad things are happening in the schools.

Child molesters are on the loose. The forces of corruption and patronage are busy plotting. And someone, he thinks, has conspired to profit by leaving children exposed to asbestos.

As the man assigned to police the city's schools, Mr. Stancik gets little rest these days.

His is a unique job, and a big one. The New York City School District's special commissioner of investigation since 1990, he has the task of ridding the nation's largest school system of political corruption, fraud, and threats to children's safety.

No other big-city school system is investigated by an independent commissioner. Most rely on routine internal audits to keep their people in line.

Mr. Stancik conducts outside investigations of the New York school system with 42 investigators, nine lawyers, and the same tools and techniques he once used in going after the mob for the Manhattan district attorney.

His reliance on interrogators, undercover agents, and hidden cameras and microphones has generated criticism and controversy. Unions representing school employees say his office sometimes tramples on workers' rights, and there are challenges to his investigative tactics in court.

Nevertheless, Mr. Stancik's findings have generated headlines, the applause of many parents and teachers, and calls for sweeping changes in the way the school system does business.

Viewing his role as going "beyond the bounds of traditional law enforcement,'' he has sought to implicate not just guilty individuals, but also parts of the system that need to be changed.

"The world is slow to recognize the problem of corruption in school systems,'' Mr. Stancik says. "What we try to do is throw some light on the dark corners of education bureaucracy.''

Shutting Schools Down

When the opening of the New York City schools was delayed until last week, it was largely Mr. Stancik's doing. (See story, page 5.)

Last summer, working with the office of the inspector general of the city's school-construction authority, he uncovered numerous improprieties in the district's asbestos-management program, including the falsification of cleanup reports to hide the fact that the potentially hazardous mineral had not been removed.

Citing concern for the safety of children, the special commissioner and inspector general took the unusual step of announcing their preliminary findings long before their investigation was complete, even though doing so meant compromising their probe.

Last Tuesday, with the school system still largely in chaos, Mr. Stancik was making news again, this time by releasing a report that identified a Bronx high school teacher as a member of an organization that advocates the abolition of age-of-consent laws and promotes sexual relations between men and boys.

Although the man was not accused of any illegal activity, and district officials had known of his membership in the group for years, Mr. Stancik recommended that the teacher be removed from the classroom.

Within a month, Mr. Stancik plans to release yet another major report, this one exposing fraud and irregularities in last May's community school board elections. "It is going to be a good one,'' he promises with a mischievous smile.

One current and one former member of the School District 12 board in the Bronx already have been arrested and charged with election fraud in the case. The office will make additional arrests and call for reforms in the school board election process, according to an aide to Mr. Stancik.

Mean Streets, Tough Schools

At 38, Mr. Stancik's boyish appearance belies his hardball reputation.

A Chicago native, he came to New York to attend Columbia University law school. Shortly after graduating in 1979, he took a job in the Manhattan district attorney's office, where he became involved with special units investigating narcotics-related homicides and organized crime.

Within a decade, Mr. Stancik had risen to the position of deputy chief of the district attorney's rackets bureau. But events happening elsewhere conspired to divert his attention from the streets to the schools.

Late in 1988, city and school officials established a joint commission to look into charges of corruption in the school system. Sixteen months later, the panel issued a report that found, in the words of its chairman, James F. Gill, "serious corruption and impropriety almost wherever we looked.''

The report took to task the city school board's inspector general, calling the office "woefully inadequate'' and charging that it wasted its time and resources ineptly investigating internal-management matters.

Moreover, the report noted, many teachers and supervisors feared retaliation if they brought complaints before the inspector general, who was housed in the central board office.

Acting on the joint panel's recommendations, Mayor David N. Dinkins issued a June 1990 executive order creating an independent watchdog for the schools, who would have access to all district records and be empowered to conduct public and private hearings, issue subpoenas, make arrests, take testimony under oath, and recommend disciplinary or remedial action.

The New York City Board of Education approved a resolution giving the new commissioner power to act on its behalf and subjecting those who refused to cooperate with the new office to dismissal.

Investigative Instincts

Appointed the first special commissioner, Mr. Stancik went quickly to work investigating a school system with a $7 billion budget and 125,000 jobs.

"My investigative instincts told me there was going to be a corruption problem,'' he says. "You can't have a budget that large without there being serious corruption risks.''

Backed by a $3 million annual budget, Mr. Stancik hired a staff heavy with former police officers, many with experience fighting organized crime.

"They help season the others,'' Mr. Stancik said. "Having people who have arrested mob figures on your staff gives you a confidence level that you might not otherwise have.''

To aid his investigators' efforts, Mr. Stancik also has spent about $500,000 equipping a "tech room'' with state-of-the-art surveillance equipment.

"We utilize anything that any of your law-enforcement agencies would use,'' said Ernest Mahone, the office's chief investigator.

With a limited budget and without the power to issue search warrants, Mr. Stancik also has sought the cooperation of other law-enforcement agencies.

When he suspected a custodian of buying marijuana from a storefront sandwiched between two schools, for example, he got the New York City police to make an undercover buy and mount a successful raid.

When he suspected members of the school-construction authority of taking bribes from vendors, investigators from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and Internal Revenue Service helped him follow the paper trail, netting more than a dozen arrests.

Who's Guarding the Guards?

The first complaints to cross Mr. Stancik's desk named an unlikely suspect--the district's division of school safety, the very agency responsible for keeping the schools secure and free of crime.

After conducting more than 100 interviews, examining thousands of documents, and holding fact-finding hearings, the special commissioner substantiated charges that 38 division employees had been illegally collecting both a pension and a salary for 10 years or more, at a cost to the city of about $3 million.

Among them was the division's deputy executive director, who also was faulted for putting a dozen of his relatives on the payroll.

The special commissioner's July 1992 report on the case also accused the division's chief of operations of illegally entering into a business relationship with its executive director. The report recommended that all three officials be removed.

Another branch of operations that quickly came under scrutiny was the school system's custodial staff.

Susan R. Flamm, a deputy commissioner, explains that investigators began tailing custodians after receiving several complaints about frequent absences from their jobs.

One custodian was photographed lounging on his boat during the workday. Flight logs showed another was working as a pilot on district time, while records of telephone calls revealed a third ran a law practice from his office.

A search of a school's basement turned up shot-up paper targets and hundreds of spent rounds of ammunition, confirming suspicions that another custodian had set up a firing range.

Other custodians were busted for pocketing district funds or for lying about criminal records to get their jobs. Few were found to keep adequate records of their hours or expenditures.

The investigators' findings led to five arrests and inspired a segment on the CBS program "60 Minutes.'' Although their report called for several revisions in state law and district policy to hold the custodians more accountable for their money and time, however, the custodians' union so far has blocked many of the changes from going through.

Pursuing Pedophiles

In its first three years, the special commissioner's office has made a total of 61 arrests on such charges as bribery, assault, and narcotics violations.

The most arrests, 23, have been on charges of sexual abuse. Most have resulted in the employee's resignation or termination.

Mr. Stancik says he is surprised by the sheer number of sex-abuse complaints that have poured into his office.

In the three years before his office was set up, no district employee was arrested on a sex-abuse charge. Complaints against some had been getting filed for years, but had never left the school principals' offices.

Mr. Stancik soon discovered that scandal-fearing principals often handled the charges clumsily and "with the strong hope they can find a way to say the allegation is unfounded.'' Sometimes, it was the child bringing the charges who received the third degree.

"I appreciate the disruption that a scandal can bring,'' Mr. Stancik says. "But the first priority has got to be to protect the children.''

"Pedophilia is not like measles. You don't get over it,'' he observes. "These people are going to be seeking other opportunities to be in contact with children.''

At the special commissioner's recommendation, the city school board now requires principals to report all sex-abuse complaints.

Mr. Stancik plans soon to announce the formation of a special child-abuse strike force. With six investigators and an additional $300,000 in funding, its sole mission will be to track down sex criminals in schools.

Still, Mr. Stancik sees his main contribution in the reports he issues, rather than the arrests he makes.

Bushels of Bad Apples?

"I have been investigating corruption too long to think that the goal is to get rid of a few bad apples, or even the tree the apples grew on,'' he suggests. "Sometimes, you have to change the soil that is fertile for it.''

The special commissioner's reports typically expose not just criminal activity, but legal conduct that is having a harmful effect on schools. Often, they end with a list of recommendations for systemic change.

Because his office lacks the power to make anyone carry out its recommendations, the special commissioner seeks to sway the press and public opinion to his side. The wording of his reports is lively, with sections titled "Back-Room Deals,'' "Pressure to Grovel,'' or "Merit Gets Thrown Out the Window.''

That and other tactics irritate representatives of the school system's employees.

Mr. Stancik "has had a real holiday with the press,'' observes Bruce K. Bryant, a lawyer for the Council of Supervisors and Administrators, a union representing many of the city's school administrators.

"His findings are generally accepted largely intact by the media, and given tremendous press,'' Mr. Bryant says.

The special commissioner's investigators are "arrogant,'' says Philip Kaplan, a lawyer for the New York City School Boards Association, charging that they intimidate those they question "in a way that is not what you would expect in a democratic society.''

The special commissioner's press conferences and reports, Mr. Kaplan maintains, tend to cite the misdeeds of a few individuals and then paint the entire school system with the same brush, "demeaning those who are trying to serve.''

The best remedy for corruption, Mr. Kaplan argues, is not the threat of investigations, but more training for community school board members and others in the system.

Mr. Bryant of the C.S.A. also questions the tactics used by the special commissioner's investigators. In many instances, the office's reports "are not objective, factual reports of his findings, but accusatory instruments that highlight the evidence that supports the conclusions he wishes to reach,'' Mr. Bryant contends.

The investigators' motives "often appear to be more to get public credit for their findings than to improve the educational system,'' Mr. Bryant maintains.

A 'Deterrent Factor'

Both the C.S.A. and the United Federation of Teachers have issued memos telling their members that they are entitled to legal representation if summoned by the special commissioner's office.

The office is being challenged in court on two practices: questioning employees who do not have representation, and threatening with dismissal those who do not wish to criminally implicate themselves, according to Robert M. Brenner, a deputy commissioner and counsel to Mr. Stancik.

Mr. Stancik himself expresses reservations about the media splash made by some of his reports, including the one last week on the teacher who belongs to the North American Man-Boy Love Association. The New York Post, having learned of the investigation, already had printed a column headlined, "Perverts Teach Our Children.''

But the work "has got to be done,'' Mr. Stancik argues, adding that he does not know of a better alternative to openly facing the school system's problems. The publicizing of his findings, he says, appears to "have established a significant deterrent factor.''

The more successful investigations his office conducts, the more people appear willing to come forward with information, trusting him and a fairly new whisteblower law to protect them from retaliation, Mr. Stancik notes.

Shaking the System

Although Mr. Stancik is protective of his independence, shunning social contact with school officials, he enjoyed a good working relationship with the city's former chancellor, Joseph A. Fernandez, who has praised Mr. Stancik for making it easier for him to push through certain reforms.

Despite past questions about some of the investigative tactics, Sandra Feldman, the president of the U.F.T., is similarly laudatory. She points in particular to the report the special commissioner issued last spring on patronage in School District 12.

As part of that probe, Mr. Stancik's investigators not only exposed the district as a patronage mill--even videotaping a consultant trying to "buy'' a principalship from a board member--but also examined, in depth, the demoralizing effect that such patronage was having on the district's teachers.

The report "should have shook the school system to the core'' and spoke to many problems the U.F.T. has been raising for years, Ms. Feldman says.

The special commissioner's office "is doing a tremendous amount of good,'' says Ayo Harrington, the president of the United Parents Associations, a nonprofit federation of parent groups in the city.

"This system cannot monitor itself,'' Ms. Harrington adds. "It is too large. It is too bureaucratic.''

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