Call it an out-of-left-field trip.
An administrator at Poly Prep Country Day School took a group of pupils on a trip to Cuba where he provided them with booze, Cuban cigars, and hookers while he scouted out a private investment opportunity — all on the Dyker Heights school’s dime — a lawsuit alleges.
“[Fund-raising director Steven] Andersen paid a prostitute to entertain students as a ‘rite of passage,’ and drank alcohol to excess and smoked Cuban cigars with them,” a lawsuit filed by school employee Lisa Della Pietra claims. “Andersen later admitted to [Della Pietra] that the true purpose of the Cuba trip was to scout an investment opportunity … that would materialize after the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba.”
The suit, filed on May 28 in Brooklyn Supreme Court, identifies one of the students on the late-2012 trip as “the son of a famous musician and Poly supporter.” Rocker Jon Bon Jovi’s son Jesse attended the school at the time, according to media reports. Anderson’s own son also allegedly took part in the trip.
When Della Pietra reported Andersen — her direct supervisor — for his alleged indiscretions, the school failed to protect her identity, and Andersen retaliated by bullying her family, the suit alleges. She also claims that Andersen previously took kickbacks from school contractors and alumni seeking appointment to its board of directors — and that he tried to bribe an alumnus who threatened to bring his alleged Cuban cavorting to light, according to the suit.
Della Pietra, who graduated from the school in 1986 and began working there in 2003, is suing the 161-year-old institution for breach of contract and for failing to have a state-mandated whistle-blower protection policy.
The school has suspended Andersen indefinitely, and the chairman of the school’s board of trustees Scott Smith has stepped down, according to a letter sent to alumni on June 2.
School administrators did not respond to requests for comment, but according to the suit, the school launched an investigation in 2013 that resulted in unspecified disciplinary action against Andersen. The letter also denies that students patronized prostitutes, as well as Della Pietra’s other allegations.
“The school determined that at no time did either of the Poly students on the trip have sexual relations of any kind with any prostitutes in Cuba, nor was there any evidence that Mr. Andersen had ever tried to engage prostitutes on their behalf,” the letter states. “The investigation also determined Mr. Andersen had exercised poor judgment in certain instances while in Cuba as a representative of Poly. [An investigator hired by the school] concluded that, while Mr. Andersen did not engage in retaliatory action against Ms. Della Pietra, his actions and managerial style were not consistent with Poly’s values.”
Della Pietra remains an employee of the school, but is currently on leave.
The bombshell suit ignited a firestorm from alumni. Citing a “leadership crisis,” one Poly alum started a petition on Change.org demanding an independent investigation into the allegations against Andersen, and has garnered more than 350 signatures in 24 hours.
“Della Pietra’s complaint is long, and the abuses it alleges are numerous and disturbing,” the petition states. “The ongoing lawsuit aside, the alumni community feels that the full range of Della Pietra’s allegations — from bullying to extortion — must be investigated. Determining what administration figures, if any, beyond Andersen and [Poly board of directors chairman Scott Smith] are culpable is also key.”
Tuition at the posh, tax-exempt school runs upwards of $40,000 a year, and its revenue exceeded $46 million in 2012, the school’s tax returns state. Of that, more than $7 million came from donations and private grants, the document shows.
In a disturbing twist, Andersen worked for years alongside former Poly Prep football coach Philip Foglietta, who was accused in a 2009 lawsuit of molesting hundreds of boys over his 25-year tenure at the school. The 2009 suit alleged that Poly Prep covered up the abuse for decades to protect its image. The school and 12 plaintiffs settled for an undisclosed sum in 2012. The school must seriously investigate Della Pietra’s allegations in light of the Foglietta case, the alumni petition states.
“[T]he school’s history of obfuscation and opacity during the sexual abuse scandal involving coach Phil Foglietta are too recent to ignore,” the petition states. “The mishandling of that tragedy necessitates increased vigilance.”