David Petraeus' shady coverup

It's bad enough that he was getting big bucks for doing nothing. But now the story's gotten fishier

Published July 8, 2013 7:59PM (EDT)

David H. Petraeus              (AP/Reed Saxon)
David H. Petraeus (AP/Reed Saxon)

Since J.K. Trotter reported last week that David Petraeus will receive a huge sum from CUNY to teach exactly two courses, the school's decision has ballooned into a genuine scandal, a veritable second Petraeusgate (the first, you’ll recall, cost him his job as director of the CIA). But while some of the scandal has been reported -- i.e., the decision to pay Petraeus an outlandish salary, and the funding sources for the hire -- a potential coverup by CUNY administrators has gone largely unnoticed. And CUNY may be about to learn the hard Nixonian truth of that old Watergate adage: It’s not the crime, it’s the coverup.

Gawker broke the story on the morning of July 1 -- only, at that time, Petraeus’ salary was reported as $200,000. That number came from documents — in particular, an offer letter from Chancellor Matthew Goldstein of Feb. 22 — that Gawker had obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request.

But then, within hours of the article’s appearance, CUNY released an email from Dean Ann Kirschner to Petraeus, which was time-stamped 1:15 p.m. The email read:

As Bob Barnett [Petraeus’s attorney] has requested, I am memorializing our discussions over the past few months regarding your appointment as Visiting Professor at Macaulay Honors College at $150,000.

Knowing that you have been sought after by other institutions, some of them offering higher salaries, I am particularly grateful that you have agreed to a lower compensation than we originally offered ... I am also deeply touched by your decision to donate some of this funding to veterans' organizations.

Republican State Assemblyman Kieran Michael Lalor, a Marine vet from the Iraq War, instantly smelled a rat. In a letter to interim Chancellor Bill Kelly, he wrote:

In an email time-stamped two-and-a-half hours after the Gawker story was published, the University Vice Chancellor writes to Petraeus to “memorialize” discussions between the University and Petraeus agreeing to a $150,000 salary, of which Petraeus would donate a portion to charity. The University is telling the public that Petraeus agreed to this different arrangement before the story went public out of the goodness of his heart. However, when the University spokesman spoke with my staff, it became clear that there was no written documentation of this change prior to the publication of the Gawker story. That’s strange given the fact that there are numerous back-and-forth emails discussing the salary written before the Gawker story. All of those emails conclude that the salary will be $200,000 and mention nothing about charitable donations.

One should never underestimate CUNY’s P.R. machine. It’s quite conceivable that someone in the administration — or perhaps that other genius of bargain-basement scandal management Bob Barnett — actually thought that $150K (plus donations to charity) would hit that sweet spot of a swelling scandal: not too much to seem outrageous, not too little to drive away Petraeus, but just right. Right enough, that is, to placate the critics.

All of this I reported on my blog on July 2.

And then things got really weird.

On July 3, CUNY posted on its website a letter, dated May 29, from Kirschner to Petraeus. In the document, which seems to be an official offer letter, Kirschner says that Petreaus’ salary will be $150,000. The clear point of posting the letter was to answer Lalor’s charge that CUNY had tried to come up, after the fact, with a face-saving way out of the Gawker story.

The first time CUNY posted the letter, a source in Lalor’s office tells me, it was not as a jpeg, as it is now. It was instead in simple HTML text, as if someone had literally written it into the website itself (as I do when I blog). The letter was up, the source adds, for roughly 25 minutes. Then it was taken down. Anyone trying to click on the site got an Error 404 message.

The second time CUNY posted the letter, it looked like this. There was no explanation of what the letter was. Nor was there any time-stamp on it to prove that it had been drafted or sent on May 29. Then it too got taken down, and all anyone got was that same Error 404 message.

Then, sometime between 5:45 and 6 p.m., the letter was back up, only this time it had a header note. Which read as follows:

The appointment of General David Petraeus was announced by the University on April 23rd, 2013, by a Board of Trustees resolution “at a salary to be determined by the Chancellor.” Discussions related to salary and other terms of the appointment were conducted the month of May between Macaulay Honors College and Dr. Petraeus’ representatives. In May, those discussions reached the conclusion that Dr. Petraeus would receive $150,000 per year. On May 29th, Dean Ann Kirschner of Macaulay Honors College drafted (but did not send and instead communicated verbally) an email to University Offices the agreed-upon terms in a document appended below. On July 1st, Dean Kirschner transmitted those terms in a commitment letter at the request of Mr. Bennett, Dr. Petraeus’ attorney.

There are six problems with this header note.

  1. “The document appended below” does not look like an email, draft or otherwise. It looks like an official offer letter or agreement, which was how it had been presented the second time CUNY posted it.
  2. If Kirschner indeed drafted this document as an email, why didn’t she send it to these “University Offices”? One would think if this had been the draft of a final agreement with Petraeus, these “University Offices” would want to see it in writing.
  3. Just who are these unnamed “University Offices”? Can any individual confirm in writing that he or she did indeed speak to Kirschner on the phone about these terms?
  4. Why, immediately following these alleged communications on May 29, did someone not formalize the agreed upon terms and officially communicate them to Petraeus, as Goldstein had done on Feb. 22?
  5. Why were these terms only communicated on the afternoon of July 1, a full month after they had been agreed upon, and just by coincidence a few hours following Gawker’s revelations?
  6. Why when they were communicated on July 1, were they transmitted as a chatty informal email, and not as an official offer letter?

Just after 6 p.m., this version of the letter and header note got taken down.

Not long after, a new version of the header note — which turned out to be the final version — appeared, along with the letter. This time, the header note said:

The Chancellor offered Dr. Petraeus an appointment as Visiting Professor at a salary of $200,000. The appointment was then announced by the University on April 23rd, 2013, by a Board of Trustees resolution “at a salary to be determined by the Chancellor.” Discussions related to salary and other terms of the appointment were conducted subsequently between Macaulay Honors College and Dr. Petraeus’ representatives. In May, those discussions reached the conclusion that Dr. Petraeus would receive $150,000 per year. On May 29th, Dean Ann Kirschner of Macaulay Honors College drafted an agreement and sent it to University offices (appended below). On July 1st, Dean Kirschner transmitted those same terms in a commitment email that also reflected Dr Petraeus’ generous decision to donate a portion of his salary to veterans’ organizations.

There are several differences between the two versions of the header note, but the key one is in the penultimate sentence. Originally that sentence read:

On May 29th, Dean Ann Kirschner of Macaulay Honors College drafted (but did not send and instead communicated verbally) an email to University Offices the agreed-upon terms in a document appended below.

Now it reads:

On May 29th, Dean Ann Kirschner of Macaulay Honors College drafted an agreement and sent it to University offices (appended below).”

This revised version at least addresses the first two issues I raise above: that the letter to Petraeus does not look like an email but like an agreement, and the strangeness of transmitting the information verbally rather than in writing. The revised header note, however, does not answer the remaining questions I raise.

More important, as a close reader — my sister, in fact — wrote to me in an email: If this Kirschner agreement was indeed drafted and circulated within CUNY on May 29, why didn’t it appear in any of the FOIL documents that Gawker obtained and published in its July 1 article? Was the FOIL request made and fulfilled before May 29?

I publicly raised that question on my blog on July 3, at about 7 p.m. At 8:15, Trotter answered me. On Twitter.

Hi Corey, I’m the author of the Gawker piece. I filed the FOIL request on May 31, it was fulfilled on June 26.


In addition, my source inside Lalor’s office wrote to me:

On Monday, the university actually told me that they provided all of the written documentation to Gawker. They also told me that there was no written documentation prior to the July 1st email.

Oops again.

Then late on July 3, Trotter sent me a cache of emails, in which he made many points. He gave me permission to publish the emails in their entirety. But I’ll only excerpt five of the most critical points here:

Regarding the FOIL discrepancy: When I first requested the records in question, I submitted two identical requests to both CUNY’s Central Office, on 42nd Street, and Macaulay Honors College, since each employ their own records access officer. (I asked for correspondence between Petraeus and CUNY officials, and for correspondence between CUNY officials about Petraeus.) I received the records from Central Office on June 26, and was promised the Macaulay records on June 28, but on that date Macaulay’s records access officer notified me that the Macaulay records would be delayed by two weeks (until July 15) because she and her staff were, apparently, all going on vacation. It is possible, then, that the letter published on CUNY’s website is contained in those records. However…

There is reason to think said letter is not contained in those records. For one, as the Central Office records show, records between campuses frequently overlap. The Central Office records contain correspondence not only between Petraeus and Ann Kirschner — who does not work in Central Office — but between Kirschner and other faculty members about Petraeus’s appointment. It would be extremely odd for the Central Office records to include these particular emails but not Kirschner’s May 29 letter, if in fact Kirschner circulated it among CUNY officials. That would explain why the website’s verbiage briefly — but very, very specifically — indicated that Kirschner did not send the letter but merely “drafted” it. A FOIL request would likely not capture an email draft.

The letter smells funny for another reason: up until a few hours ago, multiple CUNY officials categorically denied any written record of the $150,000 salary being discussed before July 1. The Central Office’s records access officer, David Fields, sent me the July 1 email this morning after I asked him to send me an updated offer letter. Above the email, he wrote: See below….here are final details for job offer. This came directly for Honors College, was not at Central Office. [Editorial Note: If Kirschner circulated the final details of the job offer to “University Offices,” as CUNY’s explanatory note claims, why weren’t any of those details in CUNY’s Central Office?] And after the Gawker article came out, Jay Hershenson, CUNY’s Senior Vice Chancellor for University Relations, told Assemblyman Lalor that there were no other written records pertaining to Petraeus’s lowered salary.

Finally, yesterday evening I had an extremely odd telephone conversation with Michael Arena, the CUNY official to whom all CUNY staffers have been ordered to direct Petraeus-related inquiries. Initially he did not understand that I was seeking proof in the form of a formal offer letter, typed under official university letterhead, not a random email sent two hours after the Gawker article. He literally did not understand why the email did not qualify as an actual offer letter — in part because the email itself simply “memorialized” prior discussions, rather than explaining an actual offer. On and on and on this went. (And remember, this was after Arena told ABC News that we failed to report an email sent two hours after our initial report.) But then, finally, he had some kind of epiphany, and suddenly grasped the importance of finding an legitimate offer letter. And 24 hours later, on the eve of a national holiday, look what appeared on CUNY’s website.

Also, just to clarify: Before publishing the Gawker piece, I asked Arena to confirm the details of the $200,000 salary, and he simply answered that CUNY was still fundraising for it. He gave no indication, and I had no reason to believe, that the salary would be lower than an official offer letter indicated.

Oops. Oops. Oops. Oops. And oops.

Oh, one small note. Kirschner closes that May 29 email/agreement/letter/document/whatever with the following bit of good cheer: “Dave, your interaction with Macaulay is already off to a wonderful start!”


So here we are, fresh from a holiday weekend, and the question remains: Did CUNY administrators fabricate a document trail after the Gawker story broke in order to make it seem as if they had already decided to offer Petraeus a lower salary before the shit hit the fan?

The scandal is only growing. It’s already gotten the attention of the D.C. press, ABC News and other media outlets. I’ve been told by several reporters that they’re going to be following up this story this week.

Late last week, NYC mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio issued a scorching letter to interim chancellor Kelly in which he demanded that CUNY renegotiate the deal.

General Petraeus’ salary of $150,000 could sponsor full tuition for 26 students. Similarly, $150,000 could fund needed books and supplies, estimated at $1,248 per year per student, for 120 students.

To spend $150,000 for an instructor who will teach just one class once per week that will reach just 15-20 students seems to be a misallocation of vital educational resources.

I urge you renegotiate this salary with General Petraeus to a rate that matches other professors in similar teaching arrangements, and direct the remainder of the money into tuition and resources that will better serve CUNY students.

Sources tell me that pressure is already growing on the other mayoral candidates to do the same. New York City councilman Brad Lander has initiated a petition drive urging CUNY to rescind its boondoggle offer.

Even Don Draper Went to CUNY

One of the larger questions that’s been raised by Petreausgate is what it says about CUNY today, where the university is heading, what it is leaving behind.

Some defenders of the Petraeus hiring are claiming that it is a worthwhile investment. The 10 to 20 students in his seminar will profit from his elite contacts. The networking. The access. The all in.

Even if this were true, it’s an expensive proposition. CUNY educates some 270,000 students a year (more if you include our adult and continuing ed programs). Spending $150,000 to reach .004 to .007 percent of them seems like a bad use of resources.

But more important, it signals how much our understanding of public education, and its role in the larger culture, has changed.

Here is just a small sample of the men and women who have attended CUNY over the years: Bella Azbug, Audre Lorde, Colin Powell, Irving Howe, Ruby Dee, Shirley Chisholm, Paddy Chayevsky, Nathan Glazer, Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Oscar Hijuelos, Sonia Sanchez, Zero Mostel, Walter Mosley, Felix Frankfurter, Jonas Salk.

Even Don Draper went to CUNY.

And yet somehow these men and women managed to make their way into the world without the benefit of an overpaid adjunct.

The mission of CUNY is to educate hundreds of thousands — not 10 or 15 — of poor, working-class, middle-class and immigrant students, to propel them into a culture that they will in turn transform. Historically, it managed to do that without celebrity hires. That some now think that can only be done by showering money on a man rather than investing in an institution speaks volumes about the way we live now.

By Corey Robin

Corey Robin is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. Author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin and Fear: The History of a Political Idea, he is currently writing a book about Clarence Thomas.

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College Cover-ups Cuny David Petraeus Gawker Salary