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Oct 23, 2018 11:02 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

FOIL Documents Show Farina Investigation Targeted Invoices From Girlfriend's Therapy Business

Scott Farina
Oct 24, 2018 12:57 PM

Documents turned over to the Press News Group by the Southampton School District as the result of a court order last month appear to show that the district’s investigation of former Superintendent Dr. Scott Farina focused on invoices he approved from a company owned by a woman he was dating at the time, in violation of district policy.

But school district officials steadfastly refuse to clarify the matter, and the court excluded an investigator’s final report from the documents that were made public as a result of a lawsuit filed by the Press News Group. So the details surrounding Dr. Farina’s resignation in April 2016 remain largely clouded in secrecy.

The documents also suggest that the school district was taking a close look at reimbursements for travel to education conferences that Dr. Farina had submitted over the previous few years. And despite media reports in 2016 that an “X-rated” photograph of Dr. Farina—leaked by a betrayed ex-girlfriend—had circulated throughout the district, the photo was never mentioned in the thousands of pages turned over by the district as a result of the court ruling, suggesting it was not a factor in the investigation.

On September 4, Justice David T. Reilly gave the district 30 days to turn over all of the materials related to the investigation of the former superintendent, with the exception of the results of a final “Report and Findings” statement. The investigation was conducted by the law firm of Jaspan Schlesinger LLP, which the district hired.

The Press News Group, represented by media law attorney Rachel F. Strom of the Manhattan-based law firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, filed a lawsuit in August 2016 arguing that the materials were subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Law, after the district refused to turn over the records following a FOIL request. The Southampton Association shared the cost of the lawsuit. An earlier ruling in the case noted that the school district will not be required to cover the plaintiff’s legal fees and court costs.

After reviewing the material, Justice Reilly concluded that most of the documents should be made public—except the “Reports and Findings” statement.

District officials reportedly presented that statement to Dr. Farina at a closed-door meeting, and he resigned from his post in April 2016, receiving a roughly $300,000 payout. He and the district also entered into a non-disclosure agreement as a condition of the payout. District officials have refused to discuss the specific reasons for his departure.

But the materials obtained through the Freedom of Information Law request help shed some light on the events that may have led to the resignation of Dr. Farina, who has not responded to questions about the investigation.

Included in the documents detailing the investigation were copies of the district’s policies and contracts with therapeutic companies that provided occupational therapy, speech therapy, nursing and tutoring services to students between 2010 and 2016.

The investigation narrowed in on a contract with Out East Therapy, as well as invoices that were paid out to the Center Moriches company owned by Krista Debler—whom Dr. Farina was dating at the time—between those same years. The firm provided contracted services through the special education department in the district.

District policy requires that all invoices be signed off by a principal or administrator—in this case, Denise Merchant, who was the director of pupil personnel services for the district at the time—which would then be approved by Maria Smith, the former assistant superintendent of business. The policy does not allow the superintendent to sign off on invoices.

Starting in 2010, hundreds of invoices seeking payment to Ms. Debler’s company were always signed at the top by Ms. Merchant, and at the bottom by Ms. Smith, the documents provided by the district show.

But in 2015, Dr. Farina alone began signing off on some of the invoices from Ms. Debler’s company.

On April 21, 2015, Valarie Albers, a district administrator, sent an email to Dr. Farina stating that she had processed multiple invoices for Out East Therapy, but Ms. Merchant was not in the office to sign them.

“If all the documentation is in order, Maria [Smith] can if Denise isn’t back in time for check run,” Dr. Farina advised Ms. Albers.

The next month, in May, Dr. Farina signed off on two invoices, totaling $4,151.

In June 2015, Dr. Farina signed off on a $3,520 invoice to Ms. Debler’s company, and between December 4, 2015 and December 21, 2015, he signed off on nine more invoices, totaling $18,616—despite emails from Ms. Merchant raising red flags that some invoices were missing pertinent information.

In one email, Ms. Merchant told Dr. Farina that missing dates of service and student information were needed to process the invoices. “I need to ensure that we are not double billed or that the information billed for was actually completed,” she told the superintendent.

The email came days after Ms. Debler emailed the district’s billing department requesting the status of multiple invoices totaling thousands of dollars through June, expressing hope that they would be paid immediately.

That’s when it appears Dr. Farina began taking responsibility for the invoices. The invoices show that Ms. Merchant began signing off on invoices again in January and into March, when the investigation began.

The investigation also looked at email communications between Ms. Debler and Helen Dykeman—a district employee who processed the invoices—between March 2015 and March 2016. Ms. Debler emailed Ms. Dykeman frequently to get updates on when invoices would be paid. The emails appear to show animosity between Ms. Debler and Ms. Merchant.

“I would assume that since Denise Merchant has directed everyone she comes in contact with to RUIN me, that she will probably hold invoices just to add problems,” Ms. Debler said in one email. “She’s a real peach (peach=bitch in this particular situation.)”

At times, Ms. Debler would ask Ms. Dykeman if she or someone from her office could pick up checks from the district office, rather than wait for the payments to be sent in the mail. That eventually evolved into having Dr. Farina pick up the checks for her.

In December 2015, Ms. Debler asked Dr. Farina to pick up one of the checks, and the employee emailed her back asking if she wanted her to hand it to him.

“Very discreetly? Do you mind?” Ms. Debler responded.

Multiple calls and texts to Ms. Debler seeking a statement about her relationship with Dr. Farina were not returned, and Ms. Merchant declined to comment on the investigation and the invoices Dr. Farina signed.

Another aspect of the investigation included Dr. Farina’s expense reports from out-of-town conferences and workshops he attended in cities including Syracuse and Albany.

Even though the expense reports were provided as part of the FOIL request, the focus of the investigation was not clear. Some expense reports filed by Dr. Farina were signed and approved by him and then signed off by Ms. Smith. According to one district source, it was not uncommon for administrators to sign off on their own expense reports—the final say came from Ms. Smith.

But whether Dr. Farina signing off on his own expense reports had anything to do with him resigning remains unclear.

On April 15, 2016, the district announced that it would be accepting Dr. Farina’s resignation at a special Board of Education meeting later that day, while also appointing Dr. Nicholas Dyno as interim superintendent, effective immediately. Dr. Dyno has since been appointed as the permanent superintendent.

The Press met with Dr. Dyno, School Board President Donald King, School Board Vice President Jacqueline Robinson and the district’s attorney, Thomas Volz, last Thursday, October 18, at the school district offices. During the meeting, the district officials were asked about the expense reports and invoices for Out East Therapy.

An expressionless Dr. Dyno declined to answer any questions. Mr. King appeared to be anxious to speak, but said he could not, and Ms. Robinson took notes but did not respond to questions.

The only person in the room who did speak was Mr. Volz.

“I’d advised the board members and the superintendent about not only the confidentiality that attaches to the agreement surrounding Dr. Farina’s departure, but also the general idea that we don’t discuss personnel matters in public,” he said. “I’m not really sure that we’re going to be able to say a whole lot.”

Mr. Volz and the district officials listened to the questions without answering them, and then, on Monday, Dr. Dyno released a statement on behalf of the district.

“The Southampton Union Free School District respects the rights of all students and employees—past, current and future, including with respect to privacy,” he said. “Over the last few years, we have been asked to provide comment on a former employee. We understand the desire for information and we are sensitive to the needs of the Southampton school community. However, out of respect for employee privacy and confidentiality, we cannot discuss the specifics of staff or personnel.”

Dr. Farina had been employed as superintendent of the Southampton School District since 2013. His contract originally was set to expire on June 30, 2016, but the Board of Education had extended it until 2020, according to a resolution from March 2015.

At the time of his departure, Dr. Farina received one year’s salary, which was $234,000, and was paid for each unused vacation and sick day at the rate of $1,170 each. He had eight unused vacation days and 47 unused sick days, totaling $64,350.

Before coming to Southampton, Dr. Farina served as an administrative consultant in Chester County, Pennsylvania, at what Southampton officials described as the “Pennsylvania equivalent of BOCES [Board of Cooperative Educational Services].” He was principal of East Hampton High School from 2003 to 2007, and before that was an assistant superintendent and high school principal in the Garnet Valley School District in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania.

Numerous attempts to contact Dr. Farina for comment were not successful.

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Am I the only one who feels we have too many fools on our School Board? Years of errors, an unwillingness to reduce costs, and that damned foolish attempt to take on the debts and management of Tuckahoe School have left too many of us taxpayers wondering if new leadership isn't needed at the next election. Why take on more when they fail to manage SH Schools as good as it might be under more intelligent and experienced governance?
By Dodger (158), Southampton Village on Oct 23, 18 3:03 PM
3 members liked this comment
Foolish attempt? How about that it was foolish that we didn't go through with it, as both districts and their students would, are, and will suffer. Thank the Southampton Association, for their short-sighted activism and pure demonstration that they can't see the forest for the trees.
By Rickenbacker (255), Southampton on Oct 24, 18 10:05 AM
1 member liked this comment
Suffer how?
By April1 (156), Southampton on Oct 25, 18 12:23 PM
Would it be reasonable to assume you are a Tuckahoe taxpayer, rather than a Southampton property owner?
By East End 2 (145), Southampton on Oct 26, 18 8:10 AM
Nope. It might have been reasonable, but not, not a Tuckahoe resident.
By Rickenbacker (255), Southampton on Oct 27, 18 3:12 PM
The school board is a popularity of numb nuts who spend money at a record pace. Forty thousand per student is disgusting
By chief1 (2720), southampton on Oct 23, 18 3:56 PM
1 member liked this comment
Was this deviation from policy picked up by the district's auditor? The annual audit and management letter are public record and can be FOILed. If the auditor didn't pick this mess up, then it's time to replace them, too.
By MrsD (47), Hampton Bays on Oct 23, 18 5:06 PM
Please explain why this guy got 300k for bad behavior?
By chief1 (2720), southampton on Oct 23, 18 5:11 PM
2 members liked this comment
The board members who took sloppy seconds from East Hampton should be sued by the taxpayers.

By even flow (833), East Hampton on Oct 24, 18 7:58 AM
300k for being a crook. Who the heck is watching the pocket book, sure isn't the BOE. Think the DA should investigate expenditures.
40k per student is outrageous. One of the highest on LI and we don't have a Validictorian or Columbus day.
Go figure???????
By knitter (1720), Southampton on Oct 24, 18 4:21 PM
$40k per student might be high looking at all of LI where the average is around $28k, but pretty low compared to the South Fork school districts, which can run as high as $100k per studenty, with most above $40k.
By Rickenbacker (255), Southampton on Oct 25, 18 10:20 AM
100k a student? lol where is that?
By chief1 (2720), southampton on Oct 25, 18 3:17 PM
Saggyponack?
By deepchanel (79), Hampton Bays on Oct 25, 18 3:54 PM
Please prove your assertion Rick
By bigfresh (4369), north sea on Oct 25, 18 4:06 PM
OK, as of a report which was done a few years ago, that compared all of the districts east of the canal (there are 10 or them, all with superintendents, director of special ed, etc)), here was the breakdown (I would assume they have risen proportionately since): Wainscott ($112,190), Amagansett ($76,740), Bridgehampton ($61,473), Montauk ($58,088), Sagaponack ($40,965), Southampton ($36,983), Sag Harbor ($35,718), Springs ($35,604), Tuckahoe ($35,200), East Hampton ($33,026). At the time of the ...more
By Rickenbacker (255), Southampton on Oct 25, 18 4:57 PM
I would say Wainscott, Bridgehampton and Sagaponack are smart and smarter. Looks like taxes could be even lower as they have more than enough to support their limited infrastructure/plant and small student bodys, and pay for them to attend nearby high schools. Why would they merge with a bigger district only to see their taxes skyrocket and their kids shoved into larger classes?
For the inverse reason, Southampton taxpayers don't not want to absorb Tuckahoe's excesses. Southampton's are bad ...more
By smacw (239), New York on Oct 28, 18 3:36 PM
That's frankly, a very myopic, tax-oriented view of the situation. The bigger picture is what those pint-sized districts, some with as little as a dozen students, are siphoning tax money that could be better used for an overall larger student body. Better programs, better options, more efficient use of money, for the students. There would definitely be synergies and eliminations in the administrative staffs, also saving money. The idea that Southampton would have totally absorbed the debt of Tuckahoe ...more
By Rickenbacker (255), Southampton on Oct 30, 18 9:38 AM
This was great!!! Thank you for keeping us informed!
By NativeWoman (18), southampton on Oct 26, 18 4:22 PM
Lol, so, a jealous ex out for Farina’s job —Merchant — used her position to make a seemingly fine arrangement untenable, to the point that a private business owner had to beg to get paid for work she did. Farina, being the adult in the room, stepped in and squashed it, until the jealous ex made an even bigger stink and forced an investigation of him, goin so far as to release a nude photo. How ANYONE can read this article and think Farina or Debler are to blame, is beyond comprehension. ...more
By Brandon Quinn (186), Hampton Bays on Oct 28, 18 3:32 AM
1 member liked this comment
Subsequently, the school district barred Denise Merchant from her office for six months and then fired her. (In the only way public employees around her who can afford an attorney ever ARE fired. - - - by accepting a "settlement" and getting out.)*

One can only wonder if this incident could POSSIBLY have had anything to do with the Farina imbroglio? [SARCASM]

Tax payers will never know. The school district won't tell us, it having incanted the magic phrase, "personnel matter", ...more
By highhatsize (4030), East Quogue on Oct 28, 18 8:02 AM
1 member liked this comment
Inmates running the asylum? Fox in the hen house? All I know is, need to get some grownups back in charge.

I appreciate the work the SH press has done on this and other matters involving the school system I grew up attending. Every year or 2, I am reassured my decision to send my child to private school was a good one.

At $40k per student, a voucher system would be great. I could cover private school by getting back property tax I've paid and the public schools would be forced ...more
By smacw (239), New York on Oct 28, 18 3:17 PM
I feel like I’m reading a Fox News alternate reality. A man was harassed and blackmailed, and the school district and the local newspaper decided to continue the harassment and ruin his life instead of telling the truth and outing the woman. Everyone knew what was happening, including people at the paper, and yet the story is somehow that he’s a crook that “stole” his settlement money and is protected by a confidentiality agreement. Do no harm?? What a joke. I simply don’t ...more
By Brandon Quinn (186), Hampton Bays on Oct 29, 18 2:43 AM
2 members liked this comment
The girlfriend was a total scammer. Any family who ever had a child come into contact with her professionally knows this. She was a quack. Surfer boy had his head in the clouds too.
By even flow (833), East Hampton on Oct 30, 18 8:32 AM
Indeed, what blew the lid on the whole thing was the cat fighting over this guy. I heard, but cannot verify more without grilling people I would rather not at Thanksgiving, that there were several more scorned/jealous females on the district payroll. One of the others is responsible for the internet picture. I think we can deduce that his pen was in way too much company ink and that part was going to really make him, the board, and the district look real bad, so they paid him a severance and everybody ...more
By smacw (239), New York on Oct 30, 18 10:02 PM
And don't get me started on Dr. "Narrow Lane" Dyno
By smacw (239), New York on Oct 30, 18 10:05 PM
If that double-wide is rockin' don't come knockin'.
By even flow (833), East Hampton on Nov 1, 18 3:53 PM