The state Public Education Department is scrutinizing a potential conflict of interest in a contract it executed last year with a business connected to its former top lawyer.
Hilary Noskin is the founder and majority shareholder of AfterMath Education Inc., which has a $150,000 contract to run after-school programs at Santo Domingo Elementary and Middle schools. The contract is administered through PED but supported by 21st Century Community Learning Center, a federal program that oversees after-school activities throughout the country.
But Noskin, a trained attorney, also served as PED’s general counsel from November 2012 to August 2013. Her signature is among five PED higher-up employees that certified the AfterMath contract on July 3, 2013. As the agency’s legal counsel, Noskin approved the “legal sufficiency” of a state contract with her own company.
PED recently held up payments to AfterMath because of its own legal concerns over the contract, according to a May 26 letter between Noskin, PED Deputy Secretary Hipolito “Paul” Aguilar and current PED General Counsel Dan Hill. Aguilar asked the department’s legal team to review payments to AfterMath before sending them out, but wouldn’t talk to SFR about the contract when we went to his office.
Though SFR sent a public records r
Noskin tells SFR that her company is waiting for reimbursement of services it made in Santo Domingo. She adds, both in the letter and to SFR, that signing the contract as PED’s general counsel was an “innocent mistake.”
“I didn’t even realize that I had done it,” Noskin says. “I was looking at [contract] clauses and not paying attention to the entity.”
At the time, Noskin had been in a blind trust with AfterMath that stripped her of all financial authority and decision-making from the company. Noskin says she had no role in PED’s awarding of the contract. AfterMath spokeswoman Heather Brewer adds that “there’s not even a hint of anything untoward going on.”
PED spokesman Larry Behrens says Noskin should have abstained from signing the contract.
"PED is concerned and interested in ensuring that the proper process is followed in all our contracts, and it is carefully reviewing this contract," Behrens writes in a statement to SFR.
Noskin founded AfterMath in 2010 to help students struggling with the state-mandated Standards Based Assessment test. Apart from its after-school programs, the company also provides four-day “camps” that teach math, science and technology skills to students who range from the elementary to the college level.
Just before she took the job with state government, Noskin says she disclosed her role with AfterMath to Aguilar, PED Secretary-Designate Hanna Skandera and the Governor’s Office’s then-General Counsel Jessica Hernandez. Both Aguilar and Skandera also signed off on the AfterMath contract.
Noskin’s financial disclosure statement to the Secretary of State’s Office, however, is blank and does not list her association with AfterMath. She says she didn’t have to disclose the association on the statement because she’s only received “small incremental payments” from AfterMath to pay back a 2010 loan she made to jumpstart the company.
Now a regional compliance manager at Walmart, Noskin underlines that she’s never been an employee of AfterMath. The company’s current CEO is Cynthia Kaiser.
This isn’t the only PED contract to come under scrutiny in recent days. On May 27, New Mexico district court Judge Sarah Singleton halted a lucrative contract between PED and textbook giant Pearson to administer Common Core standards. Singleton, in her ruling, questioned the state’s bidding process that led to the Pearson contract and ordered a review a protest against it submitted by the American Institutes for Research.
Noskin, for her part, maintains that she acted transparently and “made every effort to ensure that there was no conflict of interest.” She urges the department and others to instead think of the children AfterMath serves.
“I can tell you that the people who are teaching and working in AfterMath absolutely care about giving the highest quality educational enrichment programs,” she writes, adding later, “Please do not let an inadvertent mistake take that from those students.”
Below, read the contract, Noskin's letter to PED and her blind trust.