Email from Lesniak raises red flags

Email to Kean Board of Trustees from senator highlights potential political influence at campus

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An email sent from Sen. Raymond Lesniak’s office to some Kean Board of Trustee members and the Federation of Teachers president raises some red flags regarding political influence at the state university.

The war between the Kean University teachers union, president and board of trustees may be over but fallout continues to surface.

Earlier this month an email sent by Democrat State Sen. Raymond Lesniak targeted Kean Federation Teachers Union President James Castiglione as an “incorrigible liar,” sending the missive not only to political allies like Democratic State Sen. Nicholas Scutari, but also to Kean Board of Trustee members.

Lesniak’s email, titled “Liar Castiglione,” targets the KFT president as “an incorrigible liar,” because of an email he sent out to union members referencing a  letter sent by Lesniak, Republican Assemblyman Jon Bramnick and Republican State Sen. Tom Kean Jr. to  Middle States Commission on Higher Education in March.

The question of political influence has continued to rear its head during the controversial and often explosive airing of the state university’s dirty laundry the last year and a half.

From questions surrounding university president Dawood Farahi’s falsifying academic resumes going back decades and his ties to Lesniak, to the hiring of the longtime state senator’s family members and close political ties at the university, the issue has yet to die down or be fully vetted.

However, the email sent by Lesniak and obtained by LocalSource from a Kean Board of Trustee member sheds light on the undercurrent of political influence that still appears to exist at the state university.

According to two board of trustee members, who agreed to go on the record about the incident if their names were not used, Lesniak’s email was in direct response to an internal report Castiglione sent to KFT union members Oct. 3.

How Lesniak ended up with a copy so quickly is unknown, but both board of trustee members confirmed they received the retaliatory email from Lesniak on Oct. 3.

“I’m not comfortable with this type of email, nor do I believe it is something a state senator should be sending to board members,” said one board member, who admitted he voted against retaining Farahi as president.

The other board member was just as concerned about the email, suggesting that the relationship between Lesniak, the board and Farahi “should be investigated.”

“Political interference should not be occurring at a state university, but now we have actual evidence of this presence and personally, as a board member, I have a problem with that,” the board member said, mentioning the fact the university is trying to get accreditation from Middle States.

Of concern, the board members said, is Lesniak’s comments about the internal report sent by Castiglione to union members. In this report, the KFT president explains about the release of the letter sent in February to Middle States by the three politicians.

Castiglione mentioned in this report to union members that after requesting the board of trustees to release the letter sent by Lesniak to Middle States, he finally received a copy during t he summer.

“Ironically, the letter may have backfired at the time as it may have been interpreted as a violation of Middle States’ own policy on Political Intervention in Education or at least lent credence to concerns of political interference in the affairs of the institution,” Castiglione noted in his report to union members.

Lesniak’s email focused on this particular portion of Castiglione’s report to the KFT union members, pointing out that a phone call he made prior to sending the letter gave him the green light.

The letter Lesniak referred to was sent to Middle States in support of the university president and his leadership over the last ten years. All three elected officials encouraged Middle States “to recognize the tremendous progress being made at Kean University under its Board of Trustees and President Farahi.”

“What’s missing from liar Castiglione’s report is, prior to drafting and sending the referenced letter with Senator Kean and Assemblyman Bramnick, is I spoke with Middle States Commission on Higher Education, Chair R. Barbara Gitenstein, who told me a letter in this regard was absolutely appropriate,” Lesniak said in his Oct. 3 email.

In question is whether Lesniak’s call to Gitenstein, the head of The College of New Jersey, a state university that directly receives approval for funding from the state legislature, was a conflict of interest and clear evidence of political interference. According to Middle States rules, that would be in direct violation of the rules governing institutions of higher learning seeking accreditation.

Another point brought up by one Kean board of trustee member was the fact Scutari is the chair of the New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee, which approves Kean Board of Trustee members.

The influential Democratic senator  also had a problem with another statement made by Castiglione in his report to union members.

“Liar Castiglione strikes again. Remember his tale about how I was at the Executive Session of the Board? The man is an incorrigible liar,” Lesniak said, referring to the February board meeting when the Kean board of trustees met in executive closed session for more than three hours to decide if Farahi would continue as university president.

While it is true Castiglione mentioned after this meeting that Lesniak was at the executive board meeting, the KFT president later amended that statement at a board meeting during the summer.

Castiglione stepped to the microphone during the public portion of the August board meeting, admitting he was incorrect about Lesniak being “at” the executive session of the board. Rather, Castiglione told the board, Lesniak was “in the building” that evening.

At the February board meeting, Lesniak was observed by KFT members, members of the press, and others waiting for the hours long executive session meeting to end. At that time, Lesniak was seen in several locations, including milling around the stairway leading to where board members met for executive sessions and outside  Kean Hall with Farahi.

Tuesday, Castiglione said he preferred not commenting on Lesniak’s email, while Lesniak did not return multiple calls made to him through his legislative office.

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