Written by Karen Gellender: firstname.lastname@example.org Friday, 18 May 2012 00:00
After an eventful and often contentious spring campaign, newcomers Chris DiFilippo and 18-year-old SHS senior class president Josh Lafazan were elected to the Syosset School Board, while incumbent Alan Resnick was re-elected. The arrival of some new faces on the board is newsworthy here, especially since both of the newly-elected trustees have been critical of many district policies. However, a bizarre event the day before the May 15 election threatened to overshadow the results: an accusation of theft levied by the district at Lafazan’s father, Jeffrey Lafazan, the use of the school’s emergency information network to broadcast that accusation, and the counter-accusation by the Lafazan family that the entire thing was a fabricated crime designed in an attempt to discredit Lafazan’s candidacy with a last-minute smear campaign.
After Lafazan’s landslide victory on Tuesday, May 15, residents are left with an interesting question: Did Lafazan capture so many more votes than his fellow candidates despite the fact that the district allegedly tried to connect him with a crime, or perhaps because of it? For many residents who may have been ambivalent about the district, the use of the school’s emergency network in this manner appeared to push them past their breaking point, so much so that they took their revenge on the status quo at the polls on Tuesday.
Syosset School District posted a notice on its website on Monday, May 14, that Jeffrey Lafazan removed district election original records (names and addresses of those who applied for absentee ballots). According to the notice, Lafazan removed the records without permission and ran away, and a chase with security ensued. However, according to Lafazan, he was manipulated to take the records out of the building, with no knowledge that they were the originals, so that the district could allege that he knowingly stole them.
Lafazan told Anton Newspapers Monday evening, May 14, that he was initially refused access to the records in the morning, then the school district called him on his cell phone with the news that he would be allowed to see the records after he complained to the New York State Board of Elections. Returning to the school midday, he said he was given the absentee ballot records by a clerk, Christine Costa, who then walked out of the room, at which point he walked to his car; he went on to say that security footage, if available, will confirm that no chase took place. When Lafazan became aware that the district had accused him online of stealing the records, and in automated calls to residents, his wife tried to return said records, only to find the school on lockdown due to a bomb threat, Lafazan said.
A representative from the district’s public relations firm, Zimmerman-Edelson said that there was no bomb threat in the district that day, only in neighboring district Jericho. The representative did not offer an explanation for why Mrs. Lafazan was not allowed into the school to return the records if there was no bomb threat. Beyond that communication, the district refused to talk to the Syosset-Jericho Tribune about this event.
Lafazan believes that this alleged theft, which led to robocalls throughout the district to inform residents that Lafazan had “stolen” the papers, was a last-ditch attempt by a desperate administration to smear Lafazan’s son’s name in the community on the eve of the election.
After the incident had received a fair amount of media coverage, with most outlets seemingly favoring Lafazan’s side of the story, the school district released the following statement in defense of its actions on Tuesday, May 15:
“Syosset Central School District sent an autodial message to the community in an effort to recover stolen district records which included confidential information and names and addresses of residents who had submitted applications for absentee ballots. The autodial message asked the Syosset community for help in recovering the missing absentee ballot documents and specifically asked for anyone with information regarding the theft and any individuals involved in the theft to aid the district’s search by contacting the Nassau County Police Department.”
However, was the information that Jeffrey Lafazan requested really confidential? And if so, whose fault was it that he walked out with it?
It turns out that the answer is a little complicated, but not impossible to ascertain. According to the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), documents from an agency may be withheld when disclosure would result in “an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” (FOIL Section 87, 2-b.) One situation considered an invasion of privacy is if the “sale or release of lists of names and addresses if such lists would be used for solicitation or fund-raising purposes” (FOIL Section 89, 2b iii).
It seems unlikely that a list of absentee voters names and addresses would be used in this manner the day before an election, but the section of FOIL that deals with invasions of privacy is somewhat nebulous: some would consider the fact that addresses appear on the document at all as reason enough to withhold it under the privacy exception.
However, it was not up to Lafazan to determine whether or not it was appropriate for him to ask for the documents; FOIL encourages citizens to ask for documents from governing bodies. It was up to the district to determine whether or not they considered the request a potential invasion of privacy, and to act accordingly.
If the district believed that giving out the names and addresses of absentee ballot voters constituted an invasion of privacy, they could have told Lafazan that they were denying him access under the relevant FOIL clause (which he could have then challenged, but that’s another story). Neither Lafazan nor the district claim that FOIL was cited as the reason why the district initially refused to let him see the document, meaning the district either didn’t know about the privacy clause, or didn’t think it would hold up as a valid reason to withhold the document under legal scrutiny.
They also had yet another option—FOIL allows agencies to give out censored versions of documents in cases where invasion of privacy is a concern: “The committee on open government may promulgate guidelines regarding deletion of identifying details or withholding of records otherwise available under this article to prevent unwarranted invasions of personal privacy. In the absence of such guidelines, an agency may delete identifying details when it makes records available,” (FOIL Section 89 2A).
So if the district was concerned about voter privacy, they legally had the option to give Lafazan a version of the document with some of the information blacked out; they choose not to do so.
While FOIL is complex, after taking all of the above clauses into account it appears that the statement the district issued on May 15 cannot be strictly true. If the district considered the information “confidential,” they had the choice to either refuse its release, or censor it accordingly. Instead, they showed the document in question to Lafazan (meaning they did not consider the information contained therein an invasion of privacy), then claimed that the information constituted an invasion of privacy after they had already given it to him. There is nothing in the law that says this determination can be made retroactively.
Even if the district’s allegation that Lafazan took the document and ran is true, which Lafazan characterizes as “ridiculous,” the district would still be responsible for showing Lafazan information that they had deemed an exception to FOIL due to privacy concerns.
There is also the issue of whether or not the documents Lafazan was given were the originals; Typically, documents requested under FOIL are photocopied, with the individual who makes the request paying for the cost of the copy. If the district chose to give him the only copy of the absentee voters’ information, even temporarily, it is neither clear why they would do so, nor why they would assume Lafazan knew he had the original document.
Of course, one could just ignore the finer points of open government laws and just go with Jeffrey Lafazan’s reason why the district’s official statement doesn’t hold water: “If they wanted the documents back, why didn’t they just call me on my cell phone? Like they had a half an hour before?”
Many residents were confused and worried when they received calls from the district in the middle of the day.
“At 2:30 p.m., while my child was in school, I saw that the incoming call was coming from the school and my stomach lurched. Was she sick? Hurt? Was it the principal? Teacher?” recounted Frances Ajamian Ktenas, whose daughter attends Berry Hill Elementary School.
“This was an egregious misuse of the emergency call system. As I understand it the system is supposed to be used for early dismissals, snow days, and other school/student related emergencies,” said Ktenas, going on to say that she and many of her fellow parents were outraged by this choice on the part of the district. Ktenas told the Syosset-Jericho Tribune that she tried to find out from the superintendent’s office who had authorized the robocall, but received no answer even after getting through to a district employee. The Syosset-Jericho Tribune is continuing to investigate who authorized the robocall.
Fellow resident Charles Nicholas, an attorney, had a similar experience. “When I got the call, the first thing I thought was that it was an emergency…then when you hear that message, what goes through your mind is ‘what possessed someone to authorize using this system for this, which is used for the children’s safety?” posed Nicholas.
“Then I thought, this is very sad. These are educators who we look toward to safeguard our children,” said Nicholas, going on to say that the use of the emergency system for political gain was unfair and a flagrant abuse of power. Nicholas also noted that the abuse of power reminded him of Watergate, leading him to dub the pre-election scandal “Syossetgate.”
Other residents were disappointed in how the district had conducted itself over the past few months in general, before Syossetgate.
“Our purpose as parents is to teach our children the importance of participating in the governing establishment, whether local, state, or national. To stand up and challenge the status quo when they see fit. The mudslinging that went on was unacceptable. I received a few “confidential” emails asking me to vote for candidates and the tactics used to gain my vote completely turned me off to those candidates,” said Amy Ciotta, financial analyst. “On another note, the grave misuse of the school emergency information network needs to be investigated.”
Whether or not Syosset’s use of its automatic calling system comes under even more scrutiny, one thing is for sure: if this entire situation was an attempt at a smear campaign against Lafazan on the part of the district, as he and his supporters believe, it seems to have backfired spectacularly. While many parents contacted the Syosset-Jericho Tribune after Monday’s robocalls (not all of whom wished to be quoted), not a single one said they believed that the district’s accusation of theft was legitimate.
“Why would you smear this kid? Why would you do this to his career? All for what—because he participated in the democratic process?” asked Nicholas, rhetorically. Why, indeed.