In an e-mail and statement provided to reporters this afternoon, former New Jersey Education Commissioner Bret Schundler (R) defended himself against charges by Gov. Chris Christie (R) that Schundler deliberately misled the governor over the events leading up to the state’s loss of a $400 million grant. Although he would have been able to accept being fired over the error that cost the state money, Schundler said he was unwilling to accept any further character assassination.
“I will not accept being defamed by the Governor for something he knows I did not do,” he wrote. “The Governor called me a liar this week. That was the last straw.”
In the statement, along with copies of emails provided to TPMmuckraker last night, Schundler says that shortly after New Jersey officials learned they lost out on $400 million in federal education funding last Tuesday, Star-Ledger reporter Lisa Fleisher e-mailed Gov. Chris Christie’s director of communications, Maria Comella. Fleisher wanted to know if New Jersey officials had tried to supply the federal reviewers with information that was missing from their application — information that, had it been included, would have changed the results.
Comella asked a number of officials from New Jersey’s Department of Education how incorrect budget information was inserted into the application, costing the state 4.8 points in a competition they only lost by 3 points.
Responding in an e-mail at 5:01 p.m., Education Commissioner Bret Schundler wrote Comella that they provided the wrong data and that “the competition rules did not permit fixing of the error post-facto,” according to e-mails he provided to TPMMuckraker. That appears to be true: the states gave presentations to explain what they wrote and, while they can point to data mistakenly included in other sections, they could not introduce new facts after the written application deadline. Schundler says he knew this because his team caught a separate error (which did not end up costing them points) that they tried to correct shortly after they submitted their application, but that attempt was rejected.
Comella followed up with an e-mail asking when they realized the error. Schundler responded at 5:14 p.m., telling her that they “didn’t let the DOE know we had made the error because we didn’t know we had made it - not until a panelist asked us about the Fiscal Year 2008 budget data.”
Christie reportedly told Schundler that he was going to hold a press conference to accept responsibility for the mistake — but he then planned to go on the offensive and make it about Obama not accepting the revisions. “I said, ‘Governor, stop right there’,” Schundler told TPM.
Schundler told TPMMuckraker in a phone interview on Tuesday that prior to the press conference, he made it “crystal clear” to Christie that he never tried to provide the additional information to the federal officials specifically because he knew it was against the rules.
Schundler says he told Christie it would have been impossible for them to provide the federal officials with the correct budget information. “None of us have it in our head, we didn’t have it on paper, so don’t say that,” Schundler recalled telling the Governor.
Christie then held a press conference in which he blamed the Obama administration for not allowing the officials to fix the error, and said that Schundler had tried to provide data to the officials during his meeting on Aug. 11.
“He just went out there and said the very thing I told him explicitly not to say,” Schundler said. “I don’t know that he said it intentionally, but he let loose. It’s incomprehensible to me that he didn’t understand what I said to him.”
Schundler was in a meeting at the time of the press conference, but read the transcript of Christie’s remarks on Wednesday afternoon. He recalled saying, “oh damn” when he read what the Governor had said.
“I suspect that he didn’t know that the whole [presentation to federal officials] was being videotaped,” Schundler said. He said he thought that telling the Governor not to say what he planned to say because it wasn’t true should have been enough. He added that he didn’t think he should have to tell Christie, “‘I also don’t think you should say this when there’s videotape that’s going to contradict you.’”
That Wednesday afternoon, Schundler says he was also in the process of drafting a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan requesting that the government free up the money they had left over from the grant process, since New Jersey was next on the list to receive federal funding. He sent the letter to Christie’s chief of staff, Rich Bagger, and received edits back an hour later. One of those edits was a line that said the requested data was “confirmed verbally during our August 11th presentation.” Schundler, disagreeing with that version of events; he later signed off on a draft from Bagger noting that it was “confirmed verbally during our August 11 presentation that New Jersey satisfied this criteria,” [emphasis ours] according to documents he provided to TPM.
Schundler told TPM that the conversation referenced in the letter took place after the cameras stopped rolling, when he informed one reviewer that he wanted them to know that New Jersey did meet the criteria on the question they left out. “That’s not an appeal, that’s an aside,” Schundler noted. In his letter to reporters, Schundler clarified.
Rich then asked me if we had said anything about the missing information. I said I thought at some point a reviewer asked me whether they had given us a fair opportunity to find the missing information, and I said yes, and added, as an aside, that we did meet the grant’s education spending criterion.
After video emerged of the presentation contradicting Christie, Schundler was asked to resign. He asked to be fired so that he could collect unemployment. It was only thereafter that one of the state’s consultants discovered a version of the applications with Schundler’s hand edits showing that he had edited out the figures from 2008 and 2009 — a mistake he says he could understand being fired over.
Governor Christie’s office did not respond to TPM’s requests for comment.