When hired, Vassar administrator faced pending arrest for felony charge

A portion of the Northampton District Court docket obtained by The Miscellany News. Laurel Hennen Vigil/The Miscellany News.

[June 20 Addendum: On June 20, 2018, Interim Dean of the College Carlos Alamo-Pastrana notified the Vassar community via email that Jodie Castanza would be leaving Vassar. Alamo-Pastrana noted that her last day would be July 6, 2018. He added that the College will immediately begin a national search for a new Director for Campus Life LGBTQ and Gender Resources, with the goal of filling the position by the beginning of the fall semester.]

[May 7 Addendum: Shortly after this article was published, The Miscellany News received additional details about Jodie Castanza’s September 2016 arrest from the Town of Poughkeepsie Police Department. The article has been updated to include this information.]

An investigation by The Miscellany News has discovered that Director for Campus Life LGBTQ and Gender Resources Jodie Castanza, hired in 2016, was the subject of an arrest warrant in November 2015 and was later charged with felony larceny for allegedly embezzling from a nonprofit on whose board she served. The missing funds, totaling $2,887.28, belonged to the Green River Doula Network (GRDN), a Northampton, MA, organization that provides childbirth- and newborn-support services for low-income families. At the time the money disappeared, Castanza was the treasurer of GRDN, whose annual budget is typically only slightly more than the amount that went missing. When the case finally made it to court in February 2017—after Castanza had started her new job at Vassar—she took a plea bargain, which required her to pay restitution to GRDN and to admit that there was enough evidence for a jury to find her guilty if the case went to trial.

Vassar’s Associate Vice President of Human Resources Ruth Spencer said, “To our knowledge, this was a personal matter, and to our knowledge, it was resolved in [Castanza’s] favor.” Spencer declined to comment further about which details of the case Vassar was aware of, or whether the College administration was aware of the criminal nature of the case at all.

In an emailed statement to The Miscellany News, Castanza said, “[This case] was resolved and dismissed. What began as a personal vendetta due to a workplace conflict evolved into an unfounded legal matter months after I moved from the area and involving an organization I cared deeply about and had dedicated significant energy into keeping it functional and viable over several years. I worked closely with our attorney to navigate the legal system, and consistently maintained my innocence of the accusations made against me.”

Early in the summer of 2015, GRDN board members checked the organization’s bank account, usually only monitored by Castanza, and discovered nearly $3,000 missing. The board had first become suspicious a month or two earlier when Castanza reportedly said she was planning to move the network’s funds from the Florence Savings Bank to TD Bank, for reasons other board members said were unclear.

A former GRDN board member explained, “I recall that [Castanza] said that there weren’t enough Florence Savings Banks around, but there were two within walking distance. That gave the board pause.” This source spoke on the condition of anonymity, as did everyone quoted in this article who was on the GRDN board at the time. Many of the sources The Miscellany News spoke to, including those quoted anonymously and those who declined to comment at all, cited fears of drawing anger or negative attention to themselves.

The GRDN board soon discovered that between Jan. 16, 2015, and June 25, 2015, five unauthorized checks from the organization’s account that were signed by Castanza had been deposited at several different banks and credit unions, both in and outside of Northampton. Four of the checks were made out to Castanza’s own business, Grow, and one to another company, ProDoula. The five checks, which ranged in amount from $225 to $1,000, totaled $2,250. There were also six unauthorized transactions amounting to $637.28 on the GRDN debit card, to which Castanza had access. Additionally, eight checks for yearly membership dues from eight different GRDN members, collectively worth $400, were found to be missing, although the checks were never cashed.

Once the GRDN board members discovered that the money was gone, they held an emergency meeting and unanimously voted Castanza off the board. They also wrote her a letter asking that the money be returned, but did not receive a reply. “We took every step that we should have taken, sending her letters, giving her the chance to pay it back,” explained another former board member. “We never heard anything from her. She never communicated anything to us.”

“It was at a time when [Castanza] was representing herself as someone who was going to stay in this community, but was really leaving to move to Poughkeepsie,” said the first former board member quoted in this article. “It impacted a lot of people’s lives.”

The GRDN board then reported the theft to the police. This former board member added, “We needed to file [a report] as soon as possible … As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with a stipend program, we have fiduciary obligations that must be carried out within the context of the law. If we as a board violate those, we are culpable [for the loss of this money].”

Most of the missing funds were earmarked for GRDN’s stipend program, which helps low-income families pay for doula services. Doulas are trained professionals who provide support to expectant mothers before and during birth, and in some cases continue to assist the family in the weeks after a baby is born. Numerous studies have shown that doula-assisted births tend to be shorter, less painful and safer for both the mother and child. The second former board member explained with regard to the stipend program, “If families meet a certain financial guideline, they can request support from the network. Doulas meet with the family and get matched, and then the network pays them.”

Around the time the GRDN board reported the missing money to the police, Castanza’s business, Grow, shuttered. After the larceny case was resolved in 2017, Rich Madowitz, the owner of the downtown Northampton Thornes Marketplace, where Grow had been located, told the Daily Hampshire Gazette, “Thornes Marketplace was in the process of evicting Grow for nonpayment of rent and we did not leave off on good terms” (Daily Hampshire Gazette, “Former business owner pays restitution to resolve allegations she stole from doula network,” 03.01.2017).

During a five-week investigation, The Miscellany News obtained the Northampton Police Department incident report and the Northampton District Court docket pertaining to the case. According to the police report, after the complaint was filed on July 16, 2015, the investigating officer, Michael Szawlowski, spent several months attempting to get in touch with Castanza, who had by then moved to New York. He was able to reach her on Oct. 1, 2015, but Szawlowski noted, “[She] seemed somewhat surprised and stated she never deposited any money from any company into her personal company’s accounts. I informed her that this is a very serious matter and I would need her to come to the police station so I could present the evidence that I had in regards to the case.”

They set up a meeting for Oct. 12, 2015, but according to the report, Castanza did not show up, did not call and did not respond to multiple phone calls from Szawlowski. A warrant for Castanza’s arrest was issued on Nov. 2, 2015.

Around this time, Castanza was also involved in two civil court cases. In February 2016, United Bank sued Castanza for an unpaid loan of slightly under $11,000. A judgment was made in the bank’s favor on Aug. 1, 2016, according to the court record obtained by The Miscellany News. In addition, the Franklin County Community Development Corporation (FCCDC) sued Castanza in March 2016 for a $25,000 unpaid loan. The FCCDC is a Greenfield, MA-based economic development nonprofit that supports small businesses. On Aug. 18, 2016, a judgment was made in favor of the FCCDC. According to the court dockets, both cases are still pending. The Northampton District Court Clerk’s Office explained that this typically means that the amount owed has not yet been paid in full.

Castanza said of the civil cases, “When our business closed in 2015 so that we could move here for my wife’s new position, our business attorney advised us to declare business bankruptcy. Those were two lenders from when we bought and took over the business in 2012. As is common legal practice, those cases were filed so that if at some time I come into money they will have claim to recoup.”

When Castanza applied for and was hired for her current position at Vassar in early 2016—beating out 69 other applicants for the job, according to Spencer—the arrest warrant for the larceny charge was still active. The second former GRDN board member told The Miscellany News that a representative from the organization’s board called Vassar around the time Castanza was hired to inform the College about the charges against her, but that nothing seemed to come of that call. Spencer said that the Human Resources department did not receive such a call, but declined to say what, if anything, the College knew about the case at the time. Vice President for Finance and Administration Stephen Dahnert did not disclose whether Castanza, specifically, is able to make expenditures on behalf of the Women’s Center or LGBTQ Center, but said that any transactions in that department of the College are overseen and approved by Assistant Dean of the College for Campus Life and Diversity Edward Pittman.

Almost a year after the warrant was issued, Castanza was arrested in Poughkeepsie on Sept. 7, 2016, according to Town of Poughkeepsie Police Department records. This was about two months after Castanza started working at Vassar. The morning of Sept. 7, the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office faxed a fugitive of justice warrant for Castanza to the Town of Poughkeepsie Police Headquarters. According to the Northampton Police Department, a fugitive of justice warrant is often issued when the subject of an outstanding arrest warrant leaves the state in which the original warrant was issued. After the Poughkeepsie police went to Castanza’s residence and found that she was not at home, they contacted Vassar Security and noted in the report, “Subject…will respond to the Security office.” They then spoke with Officer John McCarthy of the Northampton Police Department, who confirmed that they did want Castanza in custody. Castanza was reportedly then arrested, arraigned at the Dutchess County Court, and remanded to Dutchess County Jail. According to a recording of a Feb. 16, 2017 pretrial hearing at the Northampton District Court, which The Miscellany News obtained in lieu of court transcripts, Castanza was held in jail for a week and brought to Northampton for an arraignment on Sept. 14, 2016.

On Dec. 20, 2016, Castanza’s lawyer filed a motion to dismiss. The motion was denied on Jan. 4, 2017, and the court records noted, “Based on the totality of evidence … the [Commonwealth of Massachusetts] has identified a more than sufficient basis of probable cause.”

At the Feb. 16, 2017 hearing, GRDN President Jean Potter gave an impact statement on behalf of the network. “The emotional impact was significant,” she said. “[Castanza] was a trusted member of our board, and her misuse of our funds and her unwillingness to pay the money up until now has cost our volunteer board of directors countless hours of work. We’ve lost paying members and our reputation in the community has suffered.” In addition to requesting full restitution, Potter added, “We hope that this offense will show up on future background checks so that other organizations might be spared similar difficulties.”

At the hearing, Judge Michael Goggins inquired, “What did she do with the money? What was this about?” He repeated the question twice more before Castanza’s lawyer replied, “It was several years ago, and she can’t answer the question.”

A trial date was set for March 30, 2017, in the case that Castanza was unable to pay the balance owed GRDN, but restitution was made in full by Feb. 27, 2017. By this time, GRDN had been missing a significant portion of its operating budget for two years. “[Nonprofits] do not typically stand up and follow through with getting reimbursement,” the first former board member said. “We felt that we had to. This was about the women that we serve.”

Though the amount taken may seem small to some, she went on, it was enough to potentially impact the lives of dozens of families served by GRDN’s doula stipend program. “If we’re giving stipends of $200 a birth,” she said, “that’s an incredible number of women who wouldn’t have had help had we not pursued [getting the money back].”

According to Assistant Northwestern District Attorney Michael Russo, who prosecuted the case, Castanza entered into a plea bargain to resolve the charge and received a disposition called a Continuance Without a Finding (CWOF). In a CWOF, a defendant does not plead guilty, but is required to admit that the prosecution has sufficient evidence for them to be found guilty in a trial. A CWOF also comes with a set period of probation. According to the court records, Castanza remained on probation until May 26, 2017.

I agreed to the ‘restitution,’ at the advice of my attorney, because my other option was to pay additional legal fees of a minimum of $10,000 or more and take it to trial to prove my innocence,” Castanza said. “At that point, after paying substantial legal fees already, my family could no longer sustain the expense nor the emotional toll this was taking—so we made the decision, per legal advice, to consider it a donation to the Green River Doula [Network] to which I had given many years of dedicated leadership and service, and to put an end to it all. It was not sustainable to continue to fight when we were advised by my attorney that this would end things in my favor via a dismissal of the case.”

Though Spencer said that Vassar does not ask job applicants if they are facing pending charges or arrests, it is legal to do so, as the New York State Human Rights Law does not protect applicants from not being hired or from later being fired for this reason. Spokesperson for the New York Department of Human Rights Mannikuttan Kottaram explained, “The law applies only to prior convictions and arrest records that have already been resolved in an individual’s favor [by the time they apply for a job].”

Castanza is not the first Vassar employee to be accused of embezzlement. In April 2011, Vassar construction project manager Arthur Fisher and his wife, Jennifer, were arrested for funneling money into a fake construction company they owned. It was later determined that they had stolen $2.5 million from the College. In January 2012, Jennifer Fisher was sentenced to six months in jail and five years of probation, while Arthur Fisher was sentenced to four to 12 years (Daily Freeman, “Vassar College embezzler draws at least 5 years in prison,” 01.21.2012). According to the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s Inmate Locator database, Arthur Fisher was released on probation from the Ulster Correctional Facility on May 15, 2017, after serving five years.

As for Castanza, the first former GRDN board member commented, “We all have a due diligence to be accountable for our actions … We all make mistakes, but this person was given an opportunity to make it right and [initially] chose to say it didn’t happen.”

[Editor’s Note: Castanza’s full statement can be read here.]

4 Comments

  1. Great reporting. I really admire the Misc for tracking down important stories like this.

    I hope you didn’t acquiesce easily to giving the board members anonymity. Theirs is an important perspective, of course, but their fear of “anger” and “negative attention” is not really justifiable. That ship sailed when they pressed charges over what they concede was a small enough sum to typically be ignored. By refusing to go on record, they’re skirting ownership and reducing the impact of what’s a very big story. (I.e., it makes Castanza’s claim of a “vendetta” — which I don’t believe at all — more believable.)

  2. This looks like good investigative solid reporting. It’s important to hold your own community members to account. Good work Miscellany News!

  3. Seth raises an excellent point. This article relies heavily on an insufficiently vetted anonymous source, without any information about this source being provided so that we can fairly judged whether it is, in fact, someone with a personal vendetta who is harrassing Vassar employee Jodie Castanza by making anonymous calls leading to the reopening of a closed case.

    The article insinuates that Jodie’s arrest in September 2016 and the time she spent in jail is further proof of guilt. In fact, it was a Kafkaesque episode of the authorities in Dutchess County speaking to a police officer rather than reaching the Assistant District Attorney, who most likely would have averted this unnecessary arrest. It is most damaging that you imply that someone who doesn’t have an attorney or “fixer” on retainer to get them expeditiously released from jail is proven guilty.

    Jodie didn’t speak in her own defense at the hearing in February 2017 because doing so would have foregone the Continuance Without Finding, and that would have led to a costly trial requiring legal fees in excess of $10,000 up front that she and her family could not afford.

    This article would be more credible and less of an unwarranted character assassination if it didn’t draw an outrageous false parallel between Jodie and Art Fisher, a convicted criminal who stole millions of dollars from the college.

    I have known Jody to be an excellent and trusted colleague, and a consummate professional, and I have seen the contributions she’s made in her two years at Vassar. I hope the ongoing attempts of an “anonymous source” and this partial and misleading excavation of a closed case don’t ruin that for all of us.

    • Gretchen, I disagree entirely. There is not merely one angry anonymous source here; there are multiple. You suggest that this reporter simply wrote this article based on one person in Jody’s past who dislikes her. The issues were clearly more serious than that. You’re right that the Art Fisher example is different because Art was an employee when he committed fraud. But shouldn’t Jody’s past behavior have raised many, many red flags during her interviews? Vassar is one of the world’s finest colleges. It’s hiring processes should ensure that it only hires the A-team.

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