Petraeusgate: Anatomy of a Scandal

Petraeusgate is a rapidly unfolding scandal of multiple parts. I mostly focus here on the third, which involves a potential cover-up. The first two—the crimes, as it were—are more important. But if you want to get to the newest and most scandalous revelations, jump to the third section of this post.

(I won’t touch here on the ethics of hiring a man who has been publicly linked to the torture of Iraqi detainees, which may be the gravest evil of all. Nor will I touch on the larger issue this scandal has raised: our failing-up political culture, where fuck-ups in the power elite get rewarded for their fuck-ups. Alex Pareene’s got that beat covered.)

Scandal #1 (with apologies to Harold Lasswell): Who Gets What…

The first scandal is CUNY’s decision to pay General David Petraeus anywhere from $150k to $200k to teach a course at the Macaulay Honors College next year. A cash-strapped public university—which pays its adjuncts, who do most of the teaching, about $3000 per course—forking over 50 times that amount to a celebrity hire: it doesn’t look good.

Particularly when CUNY is giving Petraeus a bevy of graduate students to do the work of designing, administering, and grading for the course. This is not a large lecture, mind you, but a small seminar. (I’ve been teaching at CUNY for 14 years and like most of my colleagues I’ve never had a TA or any kind of graduate assistant.)

In a February 23 email, Petraeus says that he already has a group of Harvard research assistants working on the design and prep of the course.

So his plan for the fall is to roll into town every Monday morning, “do some prep and then lead the seminar” on Monday afternoon. Where any course at CUNY requires most of us to spend a lot of time outside the classroom (prepping, grading, office hours, etc.), Petraeus’s duties pretty much come down to the three hours a week he’ll spend in the classroom. As Gawker pointed out, that works out to $2250 per hour.

Scandal #2 (with further apologies to Harold Laswell): …When and How

The second scandal is: who’s going to pay for all this? In his February 22 offer letter to Petraeus, outgoing CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein writes:

We are prepared to offer you a salary of $200,000 per annum, supplemented by funds from a private gift. While I do not yet have a commitment for such a gift, Sid Goodfriend and I agreed that, working together, we can make it a reality.

In a May 29 letter to Petraeus, the status of which has yet to be determined—more on this below—Macaulay dean Ann Kirschner writes:

Your compensation consists of $150,000 per annum. As we have discussed, this may be supplemented by funds from a private gift, though that has not been secured.

A lot of ink has been spilled on the question of whether taxpayer or private money will fund this position. But that’s a distinction without a difference. As Scott Lemieux points out, the “private donors are paying for this” line of argument

could fly as a defense of CUNY’s conduct under one circumstance only: if a fundraiser approached CUNY offering $150K for this purpose alone and could not be persuaded to allow CUNY to do something useful with it instead. Otherwise, as I said it’s no defense at all; the fact that CUNY is willing to spend money and raise it later for this purpose is not meaningfully different than using pre-existing funds. (After all, CUNY can only ask the same people for money so many times; money raised for purpose A probably can’t be raised for purpose B, and the choice of what to raise money for reflects the administration’s priorities.)

But this is all bullshit anyway, as Scott goes onto explain, because as of the morning of July 1, according to CUNY’s own spokesperson, the funds had not yet been secured. As Gawker reporter J.K Trotter wrote in that piece July 1 piece:

But it seems like he’s [Petraeus] far less coveted among wealthy donors. When asked if the “private gift” sought to fund Petraeus’s salary had been nailed down — less than a month before Petraeus begins teaching — the school’s Director of Communications emailed back: “The University is in the process of fundraising for this position.”

On the afternoon of July 1, just hours after Gawker broke the story of Petraeus’s salary, CUNY released an email in which Kirschner wrote Petraeus:

Chancellor Matthew Goldstein has provided private funding for your position, which will be paid through the CUNY Research Foundation.

It’s still unclear from this email whether private funding has been secured or not. It’s also unclear whether that private money will fund the entirety of Petraeus’s costs or merely the supplement to his $150k base salary. But again, the private/public distinction hardly matters.

As a side note, CUNY grad student and Jacobin editor Peter Frase has raised another serious concern about the use of Research Foundation monies. Check out his comment here.

Scandal #3: The Cover-up

CUNY may be about to learn the hard Nixonian truth of that old Watergate adage: it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.

Gawker broke the story, as I said, on the morning of July 1. Only his salary was reported as $200,000. That number came from documents—in particular, Goldstein’s offer letter of February 22—Gawker had obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request.

But then, within hours of the article’s appearance, CUNY released that email from Kirschner to Petraeus, which was time-stamped 1:15 pm, July 1. The email read:

As Bob Barnett 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.

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 the incompetence of CUNY’s PR machine. It’s quite conceivable that someone in the administration—or perhaps that other genius of bargain-basement scandal management Bob Barnett—would actually think $150k (plus charitable donations!), as opposed to $200k, was just the right amount to placate the critics.

All of this I reported two days ago.

And then things got really weird.

Yesterday, 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’s 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 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 on the website itself (as I am doing now.) The letter was up, the source adds, for roughly 25 minutes or so. Then it got 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 pm, 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 remotely 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, subsequent to 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 February 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?

Somewhere just after 6 pm, 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 addresses the first two problems I raise above: the letter to Petraeus does not look like an email but instead like an agreement, and why wasn’t it transmitted as a written as opposed to verbal communiqué? The revised header note still does not answer the remaining three 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 yesterday, at about 7 pm. At 8:15, Trotter, the Gawker reporter who broke the story, 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, a 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 last night, 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.

So here we are, on a long holiday weekend when no one’s around or paying attention, 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?

I’ve been told by several reporters that they’re going to be following up this story next week; it’s already gotten the attention of the DC press, ABC News, and other media outlets.  Stay tuned.

Oh, one more thing.

In that May 29 email/agreement/letter/document/whatever, Kirschner writes, “Dave, your interaction with Macaulay is already off to a wonderful start!”



  1. Joseph Tomaras July 4, 2013 at 3:41 pm | #

    The Research Foundation is where CUNY administrators go to hide the bodies, but not in the way that Peter Frase describes. The “overhead” that he refers to is largely spoken for: Either it gets paid by the individual CUNY campuses to RF to pay the rather steep fees that RF charges the individual campuses for grant administration (which in turn pays for, among other things, the salaries of RF Central Office employees, many of whom are PSC-CUNY members), or it gets spent on the campuses–mostly in ways that directly support faculty research and other grant-funded activity. (That person in your grants office who maybe you only talk to when it’s time to submit your PSC-CUNY grant application is probably an RF employee being paid from what’s called “the 9th ledger,” i.e., the overhead. How do I know? I used to be that person.)

    Where things get sketchy is when administrators, either at CUNY Central or the individual campuses, decide to run University money through RF so that they can keep expenditures off the public books and/or not have to deal with PSC-CUNY bargaining rights. Usually, there’s supposed to be a clear, private source of funding for them to be able to set up new RF accounts. It could be a single foundation grant, or donations from multiple private donors, or even revenue from contracts with one or more private entities. If a CUNY professor wanted to crowdfund a project, he or she could set up an RF account to receive the funds, and the donors could get a legitimate tax write-off. But RF management is sufficiently cozy with the CUNY tops that they will often allow for either CUNY funds or RF operating revenue to be used as “forward funding” for expected revenues–and when the expected grants or donations don’t materialize, it gets written off as a loss.

    They shouldn’t be playing those kinds of shell games in an entity that manages hundreds of millions of dollars a year in government grants on behalf of a resource-strapped public educational institution. They particularly shouldn’t do it now that the SUNY Research Foundation got caught providing no-show jobs to relatives of Joe Bruno. But they do it, because they think they won’t get caught.

  2. JTFaraday July 4, 2013 at 10:01 pm | #

    “Kirschner writes, “Dave, your interaction with Macaulay is already off to a wonderful start!””

    oooh, they’re so sycophantic– really stomach churning when you consider what almost everyone else gets.

    But, ultimately, the real issue is the content–and the whole premise– of the course. Since when does the military make economic policy? I thought our military had civilian leadership, in the form of an elected government, and that our elected government made national economic policy.

    I can see some design challenges there– trying to have the permanent government be responsive to the temporary government– but since it’s July 4 and I can’t help myself, I just thought I’d put that out there.

  3. Mike Stivers July 7, 2013 at 7:15 pm | #


    I’m not sure if this is significant or something you have already come across, but the governance plan of the Honors College was amended by the BoT at their meeting on April 29th so as to allow for Visiting Professors (a position that never existed prior). The Petraeus appointment was announced on April 23rd via an email from the Honors College. I confronted Dean Kirschner in person regarding this issue and she made no justification for it, and in fact admitted that the governance plan should have been changed before the appointment.

  4. Corey Robin July 8, 2013 at 3:47 pm | #

    NYC Councilman Brad Lander has organized a petition drive to get CUNY to rescind its $150,000 boondoggle offer to Petraeus. Please sign the petition and share it widely.

  5. Robert Stein March 24, 2014 at 7:09 pm | #

    I aman ongoing whistle blower having worked at C.U.N.Y. where I reported theft of time, of services, wasterful spending and of altered reports that has only gotten worse. If I was younger just maybe i would have looked the other way–and have seen Veteran Funding misused and that was the beginning of the end for me and for others….

    Governor, as far as the real BUSINESS CLIMATE in the State of New York as we hear the dog and pony mouth politics ……or how we “assist” Sandy victims, or the Homeless, as you allow Ego spending, allow altered time sheets, or listen to the politics of Education that forget the priority (on and off campus,) or give real assistance to Veterans, or help those in need of feeding their family, yet have officials O.K. taxpayer fund checks for groping, or reread the audits of “huge amounts of money wasted by high ranking officials” and hiring no-shows as favors, or the Appointments of a recently disbarred attorney, or the funding of Solyndra and Citytime when in all cases many said NO– as you cut essential services and we can add so many more orrrs—the game and con is all the same… Y’ALL talk change—reality has a strategic plan and personal greed that need it to continue. Now y’all are covering your ass scurrying to do…due to pending awareness/documents that might go public.
    When you replace actual accomplishment with pumped up “numbers” and play ego mouth politics for personal gain… we accomplish nothing except fund the ego’s and greed that lie and must substitute numbers for actual accomplishment—reward those that do it with honesty and transparency.

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