Who Hired A Big National Opposition Research Firm to Dig Up Dirt in Montclair?

Yesterday, we wrote about the excessive FOIAs filed by Maia Davis and the rest of the MCAS crowd. As we mentioned, a few FOIAs in that batch caught our eye, and we’ll return to them. But a few other requests did too, and it turns out there’s something very strange happening in our schools.

The first request that caught our eye was from a woman named Emily Dupuis of Public Record Strategies. The description of her request filed on 10/10/13 says “Chartwells Food Svc Proposal, payments, correspondence”. Chartwells, which the food service provider for the district, has obviously been the source of a fair bit of controversy. But the record stood out because it obviously came from a research firm of some sort – which is a bit strange to see.

Public Record Strategies doesn’t have a functioning website, but they do have a long paper trail around the country from having sent FOIAs to hundreds of government agencies seeking records, usually relating to politicians.

We got curious who they were. The address they usually provide – 1718 M Street NW, #185 – turns out to be a UPS store in Washington D.C.. It gets 2 stars on Yelp. We searched phone numbers included, and when they turn up anything, it’s usually a google voice number. Their opacity has previously been noted as a “false front.”

Which seems to be the case. But it got more interesting to us when we looked back through the Montclair records, and a few of them – from an Alexandra Wilcox – stood out. Wilcox has, elsewhere, submitted numerous FOIAs on behalf of Public Record Strategies. Just like Emily Dupuis. It turns out their interest in our town wasn’t a on-off thing.

Wilcox’s LinkedIn page shows her as the “Deputy Research Director at Public Record Research Firm” where she works in Washington, D.C. Obviously, the firm is not actually named Public Record Strategies.

And in Montclair, Wilcox has filed 4 requests since July of 2014, when she first got interested in our town.

These quotes are from notes included in the documents a source provided us of FOIA records processed in the school district during 2014.

7/22/14

Any salary stipends &/or benefits for Leslie Larson and her staff for her entire tenure MBOE, any salary increases accepted or returned by Larson & staff, per diem payments,expenditures or reimbursements made, PO for privte or personal office supplies, any charges to MBOE credit cards issued to Larson,travel records, vehicles for LL or written correspondence between LL and /or her staff and Dr. MacCormack and her staff. Any and all official emails and/or written correspondence between Dr. MacCormack and her staff and Donald Katz, any written correspondence between Donald Katz and MBOE members other than Leslie Larson

8/11/14

Any and all records held by the MBOE related to the ethics complaint filed with the NJ Administrative Law Office against Leslie Larson, stemming from the 2013 vote on Uncommon Schools contract, including but not limited to: all payments to Mark Tabakin &any other attorneys and/or law firms the Board is paying on her behalf; all records related to Larson’s request for indemnification to the Board to cover her legal fees, and the Board’s approval of her request, including all resolutions passed by the Board and any supporting documents attached to the resolution(s)

 10/28/14

Re: denial of previous request for information: Amended request for all emails and written correspondence from 12/1/13 – 10/27/14 between any of the following individuals, related to/containing any of the following subject matter/keywords as shown on request

11/4/14

All emails and written correspondence from 12/1/13 to 11/4/14 between any of the following individuals, related to/containing any of the following subject matter/keywords:   Montclair School Superintendent Penny E. MacCormack, Andrew Gideon, Amy Gideon, MBOE members David Deutsch, Anne Merninm David Cummings, Jessica de Koninck, Robin Kulwin, Leslie Larson and Shelly Lombard and the following: Blog, parent or parents, audible, Budget, technology and/or tech, common core, reform, Facebook, union, Michelle Fine, Montclair Education Association or MEA, AssessmentGate or assessment gate, Board of Education or BOE, Gayl Shepard, Cary Chevat, Montclair Cares About Schools or MCAS, Maia Davis, Silent Sender, Alexander Russo, Twitter, Regina Tuma, Baristanet, Barista Kids, Bob Russo, Montclair Schools Watch or MTCSchoolsWatch, Achievement Gap, Academic Achievement, Scott White, NJASK, Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance or OFAC, Ira Shor, Activist, PTA, AFT or American Federation of Teachers.

You’ll note that we appear on the list, as well as a whole host of other folks – a fairly massive request for info, coming from someone who explicitly targeted board member Leslie Larson in her previous requests. And that helps give us a pretty clear sense of where there politics of whomever hired her are  vis-a-vis our Montclair schools. The only other folks harping on Leslie Larson and the supposed conflict of interest are MCAS and the MEA.

From the previous records requests that we posted links to from “Public Record Strategies”, it looks like they are a front for some big opposition research firm – the kind that political campaigns and others hire to dig for dirt on their opponents.

And that raises the big question here: who does Alexandra Wilcox work for, and why is whatever big national political opposition research firm that she works for doing trying to dig up dirt on people in the Montclair Schools? Who exactly hired them to do opposition research on Leslie Larson and Penny McCormack, and why?

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