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Investigation confirms that a DOE official urged illegal lobbying

The head of the Department of Education’s public affairs office broke the law when he urged school employees to engage in political lobbying, according to a report today from Special Commissioner of Investigation Richard Condon.

During “Lobby Week” in March, Lenny Speiller, executive director of the DOE’s Office of Public Affairs, inserted language into an email to parent coordinators asking them to share a petition calling on lawmakers to do away with seniority layoff rules for teachers, investigators concluded. Mayor Bloomberg was pushing the policy change heavily at the time. But the state constitution prohibits public employees from engaging in private political lobbying.

Parent coordinators told us that the lobbying had begun months earlier. We reported about the advocacy efforts, which the city immediately disavowed, on March 16. The next day, teachers union president Michael Mulgrew filed an official complaint against the lobbying, and SCI launched an investigation. The union opposes changes to seniority layoff rules.

The petition asked lawmakers to “allow the City to keep it’s [sic] most effective teachers by ending the State’s ‘Last-In, First-Out’ policy, allowing teachers to be retained based on their performance, rather than just seniority.” Speiller told investigators that he suggested that language but didn’t expect it to be included in the petition that parent coordinators were asked to distribute. But other DOE employees said he made clear that his revisions would be included.

The report also signals that Speiller consulted Mayor Bloomberg’s top lobbyist in Albany, Micah Lasher, on the language but that Lasher did not respond. An assistant to Lasher who was also consulted did weigh in, supporting Speiller’s language. Lasher preceded Speiller as the DOE’s top public affairs official.

The improprieties took place during the brief period when Cathie Black was schools chancellor and the response fell to her successor, Dennis Walcott.

Update: “It’s obvious that poor judgment was exercised and had staff sought appropriate counsel, this incident might never have occurred,” Walcott said today in a statement. “I have spoken with Lenny and he understands that this cannot happen again, and moving forward we will work to ensure that DOE staff understand the appropriate standards to which we must all adhere.”

DOE officials said Speiller must undergo ethics training and has had a letter placed in his personnel file. The report also signals that the city’s Conflicts of Interests Board might find grounds to censure Speiller.

SCI’s full report is below.