Sunday, November 20, 2005

Anatomy of a Blackmail Attempt

So, how did Santa Monica College go about their blackmail against me and Professor Jim Keeshen to remove me, at least temporarily, from school? What was their motive against me? What did they use against Jim Keeshen to force him to write a defamatory and untrue statement against me?

As I mentioned in the previous blog, on May 6, 2005 (Holocaust Remembrance Day) I was dragged into a mock disciplinary hearing with AET Dean Katharine Muller, Dean of Discipline Judith Penchansky, and Professor Jim Keeshen. Jim was supposed to be my sole witness, my advocate against my aggressors. However, during the meeting, something went wrong and Jim told me that he was told that if he did not write this false statement against, accusing me of making death threats against staff members, that he would lose his job.

Was I angry? No. Maybe someone else would have been, yet Jim Keeshen's father was dying of cancer and only had a few weeks to live (James F. Keeshen III did die on May 20, 2005 and you can read his obituary here). Not only was I carrying my workload as Professor Keeshen's teaching assistant, I was doing a great deal of his work as well as he was spending as much time as possible by his dying father's side, comforting him and his mother. Additionally, I was helping out in the computer lab, glued to the internet between grading quizzes and student papers trying to find a cure for his father's deadly melanoma. On top of that, I was pulling late nights working on my Holocaust project in my Game Development course with Jeannie Novak. We were both at the brink of exhaustion and vulnerable to a surprise attack from the SMC administration. The blackmail was a perfect opportunity.

So, after the mock disciplinary hearing, after the smoke cleared and I realized that I had been wrongly terminated, without explanation or just cause from my job as teaching assistant to Jim, after I had not been paid, after I had been barred from using the AET computer lab to finish my Holocaust project, I stumbled to lunch with Jim. I made the only decision I could make and, on May 10, 2005, I left school for the remainder of the semester. Somehow, it all seemed like a dream. What had I done wrong? Why was the SMC administration so afraid of me? But I did not pray for myself, but for Jim's father.

On the evening of May 6th, I wrote Jim Keeshen an email. I stated in part the following:

It is very, very wrong, both legally and on a moral basis, that the Academy Dean is trying to extort anything in writing by you against me- the one person who you trust, respect, and you know has done nothing but help you. I know you need your job due to your current financial hardship, but you should not be forced to hurt me to retain this job. You know this is pure blackmail on their part, that they have threatened you that if you do not comply and write something against me, that they will find a way to fire you, at worst, or harass you at your place of employment at best. It was like a dagger in my heart when you told me you have received unnecessary grief for having me as your teaching assistant. Where does all this hatred and malice come from? Not from anything we've done, that I am sure.

I came home and prayed to God to answer my prayers in this matter, to place the right decision in your heart, to see that I have been hurt enough in this situation, that my good character and all my efforts have been placed in jeopardy.

I ask you again, please don't let them use you as a tool against me to hurt me.

Jim responded in part to my email as follows:

As you know, I was told Friday morning that I had to fill out some kind of form against you. I was told that the school needed this to fuel the fire against you. The Dean instructed me to state that you claimed you would kill both Stu and Tim. You and I know this is wrong, but I am suffering much grief from many people for having you work for me. Don't know why for we have never done anything to cause this reaction. As I stated at the meeting, you have been a tremendous help to me at both school and in my personal life and you will be sorely missed.

Simply put, if I do not comply, I will LOSE MY JOB!!! I have repeatedly told you that this place was hostile and that I do not want to be here. I am focused on finishing my film. This changes nothing between us. In fact it will give us more time to work together. But for now, I NEED MY JOB!!! In my current financial position, it will take me another year to leave this place.


We subsequently spoke on the phone and I then wrote, in part, the following to him:

As we both know, the Academy is falling apart. The enrollment is dropping and the funding is slowly diminishing. They know you no longer have your heart in the place and that you were slowly disassociating yourself and gravitating to your own film project, "The Day of the Dead." As you said before, you were originally hired to have one foot at AET and one in the Industry, yet that footing was shaken and you slipped more and more into their "vortex" as you referred to it.

You told me a great deal of the political machinations, the hostilities, and your struggle to rise above it.

So, I ask you, am I allowed to use the lab? My Holocaust project is due tomorrow and I still have nothing in writing authorizing me to use the lab. Additionally, my third group project is started and I can't scan any books or meeting with my fellow students in the lab to work on our project. Where do I stand in this matter, if you know. I am afraid to use the lab on fear of physical harm, mental anguish, further humiliation, and potential false arrest.

Additionally, how am I to perform to full potential at school under this mental strain and stress, when I feel that there are invisible daggers lingering behind my back ready to stab me at any arbitrary whim, especially when you state that Dean Muller is whipping up all kinds of false accusations against me even as I write these concerns? As you mentioned, she is trying to state that you had given me all kinds of keys to open all kinds of rooms at the Academy. You know we shared only one key and that was to your office so that I could do the work you assigned to me as your teaching assistant or work on your film. I never abused any privilege I performed for you.

As you told me, I should simply leave school, drop out, as it is not worth it. It appears I don't even have a choice in this matter, I have been thrown out, without justification, due process, without any rights, voice, or standing in the matter.

As you stated on the phone this afternoon, it [was] Dean Muller who told you to remove me from your office Thursday night. As you stated, she told you, despite your protests, that you were not allowed to have me as your teaching assistant. Furthermore, you told me that she said I was not allowed into either your office, the classrooms where I taught with you, nor was I allowed computer access. As you indicated, she could not provide you with a valid legal or procedural ground for this decision. As we both know, she told Tim to file the report with the Campus Disciplinarian, she told you not to let me work with you, she paged me and told me the meeting was to occur in her office with the Disciplinary Dean, she left a note on your door requiring you to attend the meeting, she pulled you out of your class, disrupting your teaching, and told you to remove me from the office. Then, last Friday she did not head your advice of "not fueling the fire" and she blackmailed you with your job loss. She forced you to stay after the meeting and further threatened you while you were under duress and mental anguish.

This is outright wrong, morally and legally. During my time working with you, you told me you were constantly pressured by her and suffered much grief as a result. Are you not given any respect in how you run your life or your classes after two decades of service to Santa Monica College? Is there any "thank you" for all we have done to improve the quality of education at Santa Monica College despite our achievements?

Jim wrote back, thanking me for my work and stating that he would take my advice and consult his attorney in this matter. After a meeting with Jim in person, I wrote him, in part, the following:

You also told me today that if I attempt to defend my rights in my wrongful termination or denial of school privileges, that the school will seek further retaliation against you. That, according to you, they will "make your life miserable" and "pull you into meetings" and "administrative hearings." I wish you no harm or aggravation in this regard. Again, as I have told you repeatedly, if you subject yourself to writing fabricated allegations against me in order to give them unlawful ammunition against us, you will subject yourself to their meetings and further unreasonable demands. Once they realize that you are a cooperative victim, they will victimize you more.

Who was the source of all this malice against me? Who is feeding these lies, threats, and allegations against us? Do we have any rights or say in our lives, our education, our jobs? We have never attacked anyone, caused anyone harm, spoken ill against anyone, yet you have told me that they feel threatened by us. Is this threat something only in their minds? What is feeding this fear?

As you know, my Holocaust project was an important piece of work which was done with the good intentions of promoting Holocaust awareness. Yet, I am punished for undertaking such a work. Jeannie has never even looked at the full work I turned into her. When we worked hard to promote the teaching of morals and social values in your Storytelling class, where are these same moral standards applied to our lives? When your storytelling class lecture series is open to the public, why am I suddenly not part of the public? What precisely did I do so wrong in either my school work or as your teaching assistant? Nothing!

On the afternoon of May 18, 2005, I wrote Jim Keeshen another email addressing issues I had following a recent phone conversation we had. I wrote in part the following, addressing my whistleblowing concerns and the retaliation I felt I was receiving as a result:

Also, wasn't there supposed to be some kind of CD-ROM with text to accommodate those with auditory disabilities? Who paid for that project and what was the result and where did this money go? Did you even know about this or get paid for this? Was this part of the $500 paid to you? Did you ever sign a contract to any work in which you were paid? Also, these poor quality CD-ROMS we were expectedly to shamelessly plug for distance ed pursuant to Dean Stone were not worth the $105 they charged for them, esp. given the economic hardships of the students who took your courses. Even you agreed and offered the two textbooks to the ET61 ground course this semester in lieu of the CD-ROMS. Who got paid to do these CD-ROMs? How much? And, lastly, your name was on them and the students felt in the online courses that the money paid for them went into your pocket. We discussed this and you stated that they went to distance ed. I no reason not to believe you in this regard. I wonder where the money went to?

As I mentioned to you, if there was someone who did not like me and wanted to make either of our lives miserable, then I question their motives in this regard. Was someone at AET doing something unethical and are now trying to hide it? Did they feel the access you granted me and the close proximity of your office to theirs would inevitably allow me to discover perhaps some wrongdoing or violation of school policy on their part? Why were they so terrified of my computer knowledge to such a point that they were willing to risk litigation and to violate my student rights to quickly terminate it? Who is trying to cover up what here, Jim? Why was Stu so angry at me when Jeremy wrote that article a few months ago of AET's acquisition of new computers? I thought at the time it was great AET got some new computers. I love computers! However, was there something else going on here in which Stu was involved in which led to him trying to have me arrested for using these same computers?

You mentioned tonight that you were the first chairman at AET and that there was a lot of political struggles in the early years of AET due to its lack of solidification of a department. You have been there since the beginning. Do you think that someone did something wrong to gain an advantage or position for themselves and feel you may be a threat as you may either know something or have access to obtaining some information to expose this? Could they perceive that we since we had such a close working and personal relationship, that you may have deliberately or inadvertently shared some of this history and information to me?

You mentioned earlier to me that the powers at school are still afraid of me, even though I have done or said nothing since I left school. And they are doing everything, and perhaps succeeding, in their efforts to turn you against me and to severe the lines of communication between us. It apparently wasn't enough to remove me from classes, your office, school in general, to cut off my computer access, or to force you to discredit me.

So, I ask you, if they feel so righteous in their position against me and so validated in their discreditation of me, then WHY ARE THEY SO AFRAID OF ME??? !!!!!!!

Why do you keep asking me if I plan to file a lawsuit against the school? What would it matter if they are so right and I am so wrong? Does this mean the opposite: that they are so wrong and I am so right? That everything they did against me was not the end and that they are not "running the show" (to use Penchansky's own words during the May 6th meeting), but that this is in fact the beginning as there is more to be revealed, esp. the truth.

Please stay strong and take care of yourself and your father during these dark times.

How little did I know of the immediate future at that time. How little do we all know about the course of our lives, the twists of dark fate which await us. Later that same evening, someone at SMC allegedly stole my History of Animation website from my server, modified it without my permission by removing the Phoenix Genesis name and copyright notices, and uploaded it to SMC's server at http://smconline.smc.edu. Two days later, Jim's father died of cancer. It truly was as if the earth swallowed all the light and I was only left in darkness. But there is always a shaft of light that the darkness can never overpower. I would find out of the alleged theft and I would uncover all the answers to my endless questions.

On May 22, 2005, Jim emailed me the following: "Dad died Friday. I was here to watch him go. Things are pretty bad right now." I wrote back:

I am so very, very sorry to hear about your dad's passing Friday. There are no words I can offer to express the deep grief I know you feel right now. But you're a good man, a good son, as you were there to comfort him and your family. I know how hard this was for you, but you were there and I'm proud of your courage and your support for your family. You did everything you could do. I know it is hard for you right now, but I know you will get through this terrible period in your life. Your father was a good man and he raised a good family and accomplished a great many things in his life. His memory will live on.


What else could I say? For the moment, I forgot about the looming vultures circling around us. I forgot about the blackmail threats against us. How could I know that Judith Penchansky and Katharine Muller would use this as the perfect opportunity to follow through with their alleged blackmail attempt. I simply didn't.

Jim wrote to me on June 1, 2005. "AM going to OK City tomorrow to bury dad. All is well, mom is holding up, school is finally coming to an end (thank god) and I'm madly working away on DOD. This has helped me greatly. Hope you are doing well. We'll talk once the smoke has cleared."

He wrote me an updated email a little over a week later as follows:

The funeral was sad but it is over now. I had the funeral director open the casket so that I could check that all of dad's medals were still on his uniform. He had a military honor guard and church services afterwards. We buried him next to his mother and father. I'm back now going thru finals week at school and helping my mom go thru all the paperwork and cleaning up the house. DOD is still going on and am preparing to return to Korea to finish it off. Glad to hear that you are doing well and working on your project.

Somehow, I felt like I had no energy to finish anything. I cried a great deal over Jim's father. I buried myself in SMC's website, searching for answers to my plaguing questions. I found many of them in the Board of Trustee Minutes on Santa Monica College's website. This would be the beginning of my quest for access via inspection and copies of SMC's public records.

Jim and I kept in touch. He went back to Korea to complete the "Day of the Dead", his animated short film project. I kept up my SMC research around the clock. Little did I know that around August 23rd or 24th, I would personally receive from Judith Penchansky (through her assistant, Marilyn Goodrich) a copy of the blackmailed letter she allegedly forced Jim Keeshen to write against me, claiming that I made death threats against staff members. It was backdated to on or about July 5, 2005. Penchansky used this letter, in part, to justify her campaign of attempting to suspend me from school. However, Jim Keeshen refused to attend a meeting and defend this letter when my attorney, Ed Lee, and I met briefly with Penchansky on or about August 30, 2005. At this time, she confirmed the blackmail against Keeshen.

Jim and I met around August 31, 2005 and we discussed the blackmail letter he was forced to write against me. Both the conversation with Penchansky and the conversation with Jim Keeshen are covered in detail in our Verified Complaint and Petition under the California Public Records Act (CPRA). By July 15, 2005, I had already submitted my first request for public records from SMC. I did not go away as they expected and they were now more than ever determined to fabricate any excuse to remove me from school.

On September 2, 2005, Jim Keeshen wrote me an email, confirming a great deal of what we discussed on or about August 31st. His email is in fact attached as an exhibit to our CPRA complaint. Here is the email in its entirety...

Des,

It was good to see you considering the circumstances we are both under.

The trip to Korea was well worth the effort, time and money I have put in to finishing the production work on Day of the Dead. The film looks 100% much better than when I left at the beginning of the summer and I am very pleased with it now. I now have post production to finish up and hope it takes no longer than a month or 2. But you know how that goes.

I'm glad we had a moment to see each other in the parking lot of the AET and quickly discuss the happenings since our last meeting. You looked a little tired. Must be those late nights you are keeping? I’m sure you could have said the same for me. I truly hope you think about what we discussed. As I mentioned in our conversation, I really believe that you do not entirely understand the consequences of your actions. You are a very focused person, an admirable trait, but because of this amazing ability you seemed to have missed the fact that your actions have put me in great jeopardy at SMC. As I told you, I now have people that have openly told me that they hate my guts because of what you have done to them at SMC. And I get the sense that they are just the tip of the iceberg.

I have come back from Korea only to find myself under tremendous pressure at SMC – more than when you were working for me as my TA. On top of this, I am still very emotionally distraught over dad’s death and at the same time am trying to keep my energies up just to finish my film. This is really something I don’t need right now.

I understand how strongly you feel about being wronged and your strong sense of morality, just like my dad had. Needless to say, (just like my dad) you are very hard headed. That's why I think you cannot stop what you are doing.

But what you are doing has only come back to blow up in my face. I am now the scapegoat, the sacrificial lamb awaiting the axe at SMC. As I explained to you, your actions have taken way my ability to leave SMC under my own terms. Now some one else can make that decision for me whether I like it or not. And only you can change that situation for me.

You said you are my friend and are doing this to help me, again I repeat what I said to you: If you truly are my friend, and you truly want to help me, then stop this tremendous upheaval, turmoil and pressure your quest has caused me at SMC.

I know this is a lot to think about, take some time to do so, but do come to a decision as quickly as you can and let me know which way you are going to go.

Be well, Jim

I was torn between my loyalties to Jim Keeshen and what I felt was right in my heart, following through with my request for public records and defending my good character. Jim was right, I had to follow through with what I had set out to do, despite the fact that I did so at a tremendous personal cost to myself. There were too many people counting on me. So, I obtained official attorneys on the case and filed the CPRA complaint.

Jim wrote in response, "Needless to say, your actions on Thursday have caused quite a stir. I have been given orders not to see you or talk to you. So do not come by my office on Monday as we had planned."

Yet, when two people have shared so much time together, orders such as these are hard to obey. We met each other at school on several occasions and talked. On or about September 29, 2005, I served a written request for SMC's public records pertaining to the Academy of Entertainment and Technology to Dean Katharine Muller.

Jim subsequently stated on October 3, 2005 that Muller was ""f---in' pissed" and "real upset" about the document production. He added, ""You got me in big trouble.... You've essentially poisoned the water here... for everybody.... it's a really bad climate here now.... And you're making sure it's all going to hell in a hand basket even faster than it ever had before." Jim also discussed the mounting pressures and harassment he faced at work as a result of my innocent request for public records, "On a day to day level, I'm having to come in here and look at people and as I go by they say, 'you f---ing son of a bitch'. Yeah, it's not a thing, no problem."

Jim and I hugged each other, perhaps for strength, solace, or simply as a memory of the past we had shared for so long. He wished me a happy Rosh Hashana. I gently touched his face and told him to take care of himself. Ironically, my battles with SMC seemed to coincide with my Jewish holidays. Was this some divine sign from above or mere coincidence?

It would get worse for Jim Keeshen from here. First his father died. Now his aunt is dying, his father's sister in Oklahoma and he had to fly out to attend to her. The pressures are mounting at SMC and he is venting all his frustration out on me now. First, I was fired from his teaching assistant in History of Animation and now he informed me that he is no longer allowed to teach the course. In fact, the ET61 online course has been removed from the course listings for Spring Semester 2006. The ET61 ground course had been cancelled this past Fall 2005 Semester.

I find guidance and comfort from an online article entitled, "Yom HaShoah and Lessons To Be Remembered." Rabbi Yehudah Prero writes so eloquently the following:

In the first chapter, we find the teaching of Nittai HaArbeli: Distance yourself from a bad neighbor; do not associate with a wicked person; and do not despair of retribution.

There are varying explanations for the last piece of Nittai HaArbeli's lesson. One is that a person must realize that ultimately G-d will punish the wicked. Frequently, we see the righteous and innocent oppressed and the wicked prospering. At these times, we may "despair of retribution:" How can G-d let this happen? How can the wicked go unpunished? Because of our limited "sight," we are not always capable of seeing the impending downfall of the wicked. The lesson is that we must remain confident that the evil will eventually get what they deserve, although it seems to us slow in coming. If we let ourselves believe that the wicked will be allowed to perpetrate their evil without any retribution, we run the risk that we will feel that evil and dishonesty will triumph over good and truth, an attitude which is destructive to an individual and society.

The first explanation seems to give me strength.

According to a second explanation, the lesson is that we should always be on guard. We should not think that just because we have wealth, tranquillity, power, etc., that we are untouchable, that no bad can happen to us. "Don't 'give up' on retribution" we are told: Don't think that bad things just can't happen to you. One's fortune can change in a split second. One should never become too secure with their status, as it can change.

I hope the second explanation gives strength to Jim Keeshen.

According to a third explanation, the lesson is intended to boost our morale in times of despair. At times, we may find ourselves oppressed and in pain. In those times, we should not despair, we should not give up hope that G-d will help us. When the retribution is against us, we should not despair. We should not give up on praying to G-d. G-d is there to help us. We may not experience salvation immediately, but salvation will come.

I can only pray that the last explanation gives us all strength in this time of despair.

Respectfully,
Des Manttari
Editor-in-Chief,
Phoenix Genesis

(c) 2005: Phoenix Genesis/MBS LP

Editor's Note: Emails have been corrected for minor spelling errors, but otherwise remain intact.

Feel free to link or print this; just include the SAVE SMC URL: http://savesmc.blogspot.com/

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