Monday, October 10, 2011

Haunted by his ties to tainted nonprofit, Education Secretary Arne Duncan ignores questions about $174,000 "phantom" program he arranged for the group

In June I reported about an inquiry from Michael P. Goldenberg of Ann Arbor, MI, to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Goldenberg had questions about a $174,000 contract Duncan arranged when he ran the Chicago Public Schools (CPS).

The money was awarded to the Save-A-Life Foundation (SALF) a Chicago-area nonprofit. Now under investigation by federal and state agencies, SALF has been the subject of dozens of mainstream media exposes, starting with a November 2006 barnburner by ABC7 Chicago that included an interview with Duncan:
One of Illinois' highest profile charities teaches the Heimlich maneuver to children while maneuvering the truth to get money from government and big business.
It's called the Save-A-Life Foundation and is known across Illinois as an organization that teaches schoolchildren how to respond in emergencies. For the past few years, Save-A-Life has received millions of dollars in government funds and corporate donations. An ABC7 I-Team investigation has uncovered a series of misleading claims and deceptive credentials that raise doubts about Save-A-Life's integrity, funding and training.

Save-A-Life officials say they have taught the Heimlich maneuver and other first aid techniques to more than 1 million schoolchildren since 1995. They claim to have taught nearly 70,000 children how to save a life in the Chicago Public Schools this year alone.

On the Save-A-Life website, the organization promotes itself with a cartoon character of Schools' CEO Arne Duncan, who acts as an animated pitchman.

...Schools CEO Arne Duncan says it seems unlikely that (the) organization could have taught the number of students they claim.

With a developing mess that may involve President Obama - the Huffington Post reported that he was "close" to SALF, an allegation for which a White House press officer has promised me a response - you might think Duncan would provide a prompt and unequivocal denial.

But four months after Goldenberg's letter, the Ed Sec hasn't made a peep.

Gerald W. Bracey, 1940-2009
Instead, evasive, play-dumb e-mails from a Department of Education Communications Director seem to bolster concerns raised two years ago by the late education critic Jerry Bracey in his final column, The Skeleton in Arne Duncan's Closet.
Halloween season is an appropriate time to talk about rattling skeletons in the closet. US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan appears to have a noisy one dating from his years running the Chicago Public Schools.

Her name is Carol J. Spizzirri.

A little background. Spizzirri is a convicted shoplifter. According to a sworn affidavit by her ex-husband, a court ordered psychological evaluation diagnosed her as a paranoid schizophrenic and pathological liar. Spizzirri claimed to be a registered nurse and a renal specialist. Her alma mater, now defunct, denied giving her an RN and reportedly she has never been a registered nurse in either Wisconsin or Illinois, as she had claimed. One of her daughters filed a protective order against her because of alleged abuse.
From Where Did the Save-A-Life Money Go? by Don Bauder, San Diego Reader, November 17, 2010:
Arne Duncan, then the chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools, now United States Secretary of Education, had lauded what the foundation was doing for the schools and effused, "Carol [Spizzirri] is one of my heroes."
Here's his hero storming out mid-interview when ABC7 I-Team reporter Chuck Goudie challenged claims made in SALF's fundraising and promotional materials about the Labor Day 1992 death of her 18-year-old daughter, Christina Pratt:

Shortly before her death, the girl filed a protective order against her mother who she claimed had struck her "on several occasions and threatened her on many occasions."

Via the Chicago Tribune:
(SALF founder/president Carol) Spizzirri launched a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching children emergency response techniques, raising at least $8.6 million in federal and state grants for her Save-A-Life Foundation...(Spizzirri) estimates 2 million children took the classes, many of them from the Chicago Public Schools.
However, in response to a federal court subpoena and public records requests, CPS can't produce any training records.

SALF's now under investigation by the Illinois Attorney General and by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC awarded SALF about $3.33 million, money that SALF told the CDC was used to train public school students in Chicago and Milwaukee. But the Milwaukee Schools don't have any records either.

According to a letter from the office of the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services, the CDC is supposed to be looking into the role of Douglas R. Browne, a CDC Deputy Director who moonlighted as SALF's Corporate Treasurer according to an article in The Hill.

Duncan arranged a two-year contract with Spizzirri in which her organization was supposed to provide first aid training for 18,000 students during school years 2004/05 and 2005/06. Duncan signed off on $49,000 from the CPS coffers and Ronald McDonald House Charities kicked in another $125,000, a total of $174,000 handed to SALF.

Arne Duncan, Carol J. Spizzirri, and you-know-who (circa 2005)
But like I said, CPS has no records for the program. Further, in response to a public records request I filed for all training records associated with SALF's phantom CPS/McDonald's program, CPS handed the dirty diaper to Duncan:
The Chicago Public Schools does not have any responsive documents to your April 29, 2011 request. The schools who received training from the Save A Life Foundation were selected by members of the former CPS Chief Education Officer’s Office.
Which brings us back to Michael Goldenberg's inquiry.

Michael P. Goldenberg
Goldenberg, who's spent his career in public education, posted his letter to Arne on his blog and included a link to my web page, Did Arne Duncan unknowingly help a bogus nonprofit rip off $174,000 from the Chicago Schools & McDonald's Charities?

Goldenberg wanted to know if the former Chief Education Officer of the Chicago Schools thought the current Inspector General of the Chicago Schools should investigate the $174,000 contract Duncan arranged for SALF. In a follow-up, Goldenberg asked if Duncan had a financial relationship with SALF.

Answering those questions should be easy dunks for a White House cabinet member and a former basketball pro.

Apparently not. After months of promises and foot-dragging by Duncan's office, Goldenberg received this non-answer:
Date: Fri, 12 Aug 2011 15:35:49 -0500
From: "Dorfman, Cynthia" <>
Subject: Your letter to Secretary Duncan
To: "" <>

Dear Mr. Goldenberg,

We received your letter to Secretary Duncan regarding the SALF program in Chicago Public Schools. Since the Secretary is no longer affiliated with the school system in Chicago, your best source of information is the school system itself. They would have all the records and data.

Cynthia Dorfman
Director of Regional Communications and Outreach 
Goldenberg copied me on his correspondence and since he was being sandbagged, I thought I'd give it a go. From the e-mail I sent last week to Ms. Dorfman:
(On my blog) I intend to report that Mr. Duncan and you would not answer any of Mr. Goldenberg's questions including whether or not Mr. Duncan had a financial relationship with SALF. If you wish to dispute that characterization and/or provide further information or clarification, please get back to me no later than Wednesday, October 5.
It took a couple of phone messages and follow-up e-mails for her to finally send me this piffle:
Mr. Heimlich, I was (sic) responding to your emails and voice mail to let you know that I don't have any information about this issue.
But I don't fault Ms. Dorfman.

She's just stuck with the crummy task of having to cover for a boss who apparently doesn't want anyone going into his basement where - if you listen - you might hear a $174,000 skeleton moaning and rattling its chains.

"Dear Arne" letter from Carol Spizzirri + grant request for year 2 of SALF's CPS/McDonald's program

"Dear Carol" letter from Arne Duncan approving year 2 of SALF/Ronald McDonald House program