TRENTON — In February 2007, Christopher Cerf was a newly hired deputy chancellor in the New York City school system when he was asked at a public forum to describe his financial interest in Edison Schools Inc., a for-profit education company he once headed.
"I’d be delighted to do that," Cerf replied, according to a published account of the meeting. "I have no financial interest in Edison of any kind. Zero."
Asked by the president of a parents group when he had relinquished the shares, Cerf said he would be "delighted" to provide his financial disclosure form.
Then he clammed up.
What Cerf declined to volunteer is that he had given up the shares just the day before.
In fact, Cerf was under no obligation to rescind his stake in Edison. But his unwillingness to fully answer the question that day would lead to unflattering headlines, public criticism and an investigation by the school system’s Special Commissioner of Investigation.
Four years later, the man who represents perhaps the most important nomination of Gov. Chris Christie’s tenure is again facing questions about his openness, imperiling his confirmation as education commissioner at a time when the governor has made education reform one of his top priorities.
A Star-Ledger examination encompassing dozens of interviews, along with a review of public and private documents, shows Cerf is known as a gifted educator, a strategic thinker and a tireless advocate for children. His fans include a retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice and the union head he sparred with over several years in New York.
But the reporting also shows Cerf can be thin-skinned, quick-tempered and, at times, less than forthcoming, even when the answers to questions could hardly be seen as damaging. Late last month, when The Star-Ledger found that Cerf had formed a consulting company that received a $500,000 contract, paid for by private donations, to perform an assessment of the Newark schools, the acting commissioner said he severed his relationship with the firm "literally right after its formation."
"I never actually did anything with it, so I’m not in any way, shape or form related to it," he said at the time.
Cerf has since provided a fuller accounting of his role with the company, Global Education Advisors, acknowledging he did some work on the assessment.
He maintains he received no compensation for his brief period of work and calls his association with the company a "trivial and inconsequential part of my background."
Separately, state Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex) says Cerf lied to him in a conversation, contending the acting commissioner denied having close ties to Newark Mayor Cory Booker, with whom Rice does not get along. Cerf has long had an interest in the Newark schools and has been described as an informal adviser to Booker on education issues.
In a series of telephone interviews and in dozens of e-mails to Star-Ledger reporters and editors, Cerf said he has done nothing inappropriate, bristling at the suggestion he would ever leverage public office for private gain. He also denied misleading Rice, saying the two have had several "open and candid conversations about a range of issues."
"I have always been forthright with the senator," Cerf said.
Asked about Booker, Cerf declined to characterize his relationship with the mayor.
Christie has accused Rice of playing politics with the nomination, and a spokesman for the governor said Christie stands firmly behind his pick.
Cerf, for his part, said that while he has found the negative publicity bruising and "profoundly unfair," he has no plans to step down, describing his motivation to reform education as something "spiritual."
Oh, yeah - when I think Chris Cerf, the word that comes to mind is "spiritual."
No wait - the word that comes to mind is "crook."
Other words that come to mind are "payola," "ethically-challenged," "politically connected," and "corruption."
I hope the Dems on Jersey stand tough on this nomination.
Because clearly, the AFT won't.
Read deep into the article - Weingarten, friends with Cerf, calls him a "gifted reformer."
You know, when Randi Weingarten comes to mind, the words I think of are also "payola," "ethically-challenged," "politically connected," and "corruption."
Now wonder she's defending Cerf.