Ex-NJ education chief says gov. defamed him

Pictured: Gov. Chris Christie shows off the application for the "Race to the Top" grant. He went on to say, out of the hundreds of pages, the clerical mistake was on "one sheet of paper."

September 1, 2010 5:07:18 PM PDT
The former state education commissioner, still stinging from being fired last week, said Wednesday that Gov. Chris Christie has "defamed" him.

Bret Schundler was ousted Friday after the discovery of a mistake on an application that may have cost the state a $400 million federal education grant.

Day by day, disputes between Schundler and Christie have escalated, with each accusing the other of misrepresenting what happened.

Their public argument, conducted in Christie's news conferences and his staff's written statements and in Schundler's media interviews and letters, is now about honor. The two men can't both be right.

In a letter sent to reporters on Wednesday, Schundler said that he would not comment further - and that he was willing to give the Republican governor the last word.

While Schundler says that he was responsible for the error and even deserved to be fired for it, he has consistently denied doing what the governor says he was fired for doing: misleading the governor about details of the mistake.

On Wednesday, Schundler went further when he released a letter detailing the error and its aftermath.

"I will not accept being defamed by the governor for something he knows I did not do," Schundler wrote. "The governor called me a liar this week. That was the last straw."

Christie's office did not make any administration officials available to comment Wednesday despite repeated interview requests and did not answer specific questions. Spokesman Michael Drewniak released a statement criticizing Schundler again but not responding to Schundler's latest claims.

New Jersey was denied the grant on Aug. 24. Later that day, Newark's The Star-Ledger newspaper became the first to report that a technical error - providing data for the 2010 and 2011 fiscal years, when the application asked for figures from 2008 and 2009 - may have doomed the state's otherwise strong application.

The next day, Christie went on the offensive, blaming President Barack Obama's administration for valuing form over substance. A key part of his argument: During an interview with a panel scoring the application earlier in August, Schundler had told the federal Department of Education the right figures.

But that turned out to be false. On Aug. 26, federal officials released a video showing that. The account Christie gave was demonstrably wrong.

It was after that video was released that Schundler was fired, supposedly for misleading the governor in the run-up to his angry comments.

Hours after his firing, he released an e-mail exchange he had with Christie's communications director, Maria Comella, that seems to back up his account.

On Wednesday, Schundler said he spoke with Christie and his chief of staff, Richard Bagger, just before Christie's news conference.

"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," Schundler wrote. "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."

Christie went on the offensive that he proposed, Schundler says.

"The governor said precisely what I told him NOT to say," Schundler wrote.

But on Tuesday, Christie gave an account that contradicts Schundler's about what happened before his Aug. 25 news conference.

"I got on the phone with the commissioner and said, 'Tell me everything,"' Christie said. "We had a 15-minute or so conversation, where I asked him a lot of questions and he gave me a lot of answers. I don't know how, given the varying answers, how I can conclude anything other than I was misled."

Also on Wednesday, acting education commissioner Rochelle Hendricks told the state Board of Education that she plans to continue pursuing the education reform that the state proposed in its doomed Race to the Top application.

"It would have been nice to have had that $400 million extra to do that work," she said.

Specifically, she said, the state would try to press ahead with its plan to develop academies, experimental schools set up by teachers. Unlike the state's charter schools, they would be part of traditional school districts.

She also said the state would pursue foundation money to help pay for some of its plans.