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For the first time in his long, charmed career, Frank Tassone had a problem. The erudite, widely admired superintendent of the Roslyn, Long Island, school district — the North Shore public-school system he had managed to make, based on test scores, one of the ten best in America — found himself confronted in the fall of 2002 with a rather awkward, potentially embarrassing situation. His assistant superintendent for business had been caught stealing $250,000, writing school checks to cover her credit-card bills and impetuously racking up mammoth purchases at a Home Depot several towns away. And the school-board members were sitting in the district’s conference room, waiting for Tassone to tell them what to do.
If you want a job where you get blame for everything, credit for nothing, and no real reward, try running for the Roslyn school board. Everyone on the North Shore has a child who is a genius, or demands extra attention, or has a guidance counselor who needs some sense talked into him. In darker moments, it’s you against the community you hoped to serve, with only the superintendent — the pro — to help you with the tough decisions. The pro, in this case, was Tassone, always dressed in the freshly pressed wardrobe of a CEO, with the academic pedigree and easygoing authority of a literature professor. That night, Tassone made a moving, eloquent argument for compassion and leniency. The culprit, Pam Gluckin, had tearfully confessed, he said. Her marriage was falling apart, she was ill, she’d been desperate. And if the board didn’t press charges, she’d agree to quietly resign, give up her administrator’s license, and give back the money right away.
Not everybody went for it at first. Some board members wondered if they had a moral obligation to throw the book at her. But Tassone warned that if this sort of thing wasn’t handled gingerly, it could take years to go away. Gluckin was a tenured civil-service worker who made $160,000. If the board pressed charges, she’d keep earning that money for years as the case crept through the courts. But if she left on her own, Roslyn could save that money and get back what it lost. No harm, no foul.
Others wondered if letting her go was even legal. So it was something of a relief that Tassone had thought of this, too. He had asked a criminal lawyer, a former Nassau County prosecutor, to come to the meeting — and that lawyer advised them that as a matter of law, victims of embezzlement didn’t have to press charges.
As the board had come to expect of him, Tassone was putting into words what they knew, but didn’t know they knew. Roslyn may be no wealthier than Great Neck or Syosset or Jericho, but its schools were seen as the best. A diploma from Roslyn High School is the closest you can get on Long Island to a ticket to Harvard; every year, a quarter of the seniors get into highly selective colleges. Did they want camera crews on school grounds, or auditors sniffing around the district office? Would Ivy League admissions officers look at Roslyn students the same way? What, Tassone said, would happen to property values?
His message was clear: No good could come from going public. Voters could hardly be expected to reelect school-board members who’d let something like that happen in a place like this.
And he was probably right. But what the board couldn’t have known was that Tassone was not just protecting Pam Gluckin. He was also protecting himself.
Clustered in a wooded enclave of Levittown-style homes mingled with compact mansions on tiny lots, the villages of Roslyn and East Hills make up an enlightened community with forward-thinking public schools — the first on Long Island with free condoms in a jar in the health room, one of the first in the state with a community-service requirement for high-school graduation. At least one student has parked a Hummer in the Roslyn High School lot, and a flat-screen TV posts schedules in the halls. Parents are so determined to buff their kids’ transcripts that the high school now offers honors classes to any student who wants them. In April, the Wall Street Journal called Roslyn High the sixth-best public high school in America, not far behind Stuyvesant and Hunter.
Then, in May, the roof fell in. According to Nassau County prosecutors, Frank Tassone had spent his twelve years in Roslyn quietly running one of the most audacious scams ever to afflict a public-school system. The coffers were plundered in practically every imaginable way — expense-account padding, vendor-bidding violations, check-record fabrications, even the creation of phony businesses. Tassone allegedly had the district pay for two trips to London on the Concorde, one for $20,000 and another for $30,000, including $1,800-a-night suites, and a half-dozen jaunts to Las Vegas with his friends — including Roslyn High’s popular principal, Jay Stoller — where the district even staked some of Tassone’s gambling money. The D.A. says that by the time he was arrested on July 6, Tassone had saved enough money to transfer $300,000 to bank accounts in his sisters’ names.
Both Tassone and Gluckin have been arrested for first-degree larceny, and the court has frozen their assets as they await indictment. But it’s doubtful Roslyn will ever get back what was lost. There’s a reported $8 million missing, and the district attorney’s auditors haven’t finished counting. After a wave of other resignations, the D.A. says more arrests may be on the way.
What’s just as surprising to the parents and teachers of Roslyn is that Tassone had been living something of a double life. The seemingly monastic bachelor who had an old wedding photo on a shelf in his office — and spoke wistfully of the young woman he married who died of cancer — turned out, it appears, to be living with one man in Manhattan while owning a house in Las Vegas with a 32-year-old male exotic dancer. Now, at the start of a new school year, parents are left wondering what, if anything, was real about the man who won their trust and made their schools the envy of Long Island. How could a twelve-year, $8 million scam go down right under their noses? And perhaps most troubling: Did Frank Tassone deceive Roslyn, or, out of a desire to give its children the best, did Roslyn allow itself to be deceived by Frank Tassone?
Being the head of a wealthy school system is a little like being the headwaiter at Alain Ducasse. You’re at the top of your profession, but at the end of the day, you’re still a waiter. “Working here is about client satisfaction,” says Charlie Piemonte, Roslyn’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. “The concerns people have for their kids are serious at a very young age. It’s like a business. They put their kids on a path — if you’re in a gifted program, if you get the teacher everybody loves, if you get A.P. classes. It’s an untenable job.”
Tassone, however, made it look easy. “Frank was really the master,” Piemonte says. “I mean, this guy was loved. He walked on water.”
From the moment he arrived, Tassone understood that in a place like Roslyn, parents expected the schools to be more than just the stewards of education — they also had to be shimmering reflections of the community. His own credentials were certainly first-rate. Brought up in a rowhouse in the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx, Tassone went on to earn a B.A. from Iona College in Westchester and then two master’s degrees — in educational administration and languages and literature — and a doctorate in educational administration at Teachers’ College, where he wrote his dissertation on Dickens. He worked as an administrator in Westchester and Levittown before landing in Roslyn in 1992.
Every new program Tassone started played into Roslyn’s sense of pride — or, perhaps, vanity. He brought foreign-language classes into the elementary schools, and a “values education” curriculum to the high school, including the community-service requirement. He embraced senior citizens by starting discussion groups and hosting an annual community dinner-dance — scheduled, shrewdly, right before the annual vote on the school budget. School employees learned to look forward to birthday cards signed “Dr. Tassone,” and congratulatory gift baskets on anniversaries. And he disarmed potential dissenters face to face, meeting by meeting — sitting still as an owl at his office’s conference table, hands folded in his lap, head nodding.
Once, when four elementary-school teachers complained about their principal, Tassone both talked with the principal and sent the four teachers a T-shirt. One shirt read 2TEACH + 2TOUCH LIVES = 4EVER. “He couldn’t do too much wrong in my eyes after that,” one of the teachers says. “I liked that he was so approachable.” A few years after he arrived, the Rotary Club named him man of the year.
There were limits to how much Tassone would reveal about his private life. The most he’d tell colleagues was that he’d been briefly married. “Frank said his wife, Joanne, died at a very early age,” says Eleanor Russell, the teachers-union president. “She had some kind of an illness. He had a wedding picture in his office.” But outwardly, he lived the way the people of Roslyn seemed to want a superintendent to live. His Mercedes was one example. Serving lobster tails to other superintendents at a regional luncheon was another. “You’re not going to find many superintendents who live like Frank, because we’re afraid to,” another Long Island school superintendent says. “You don’t want to appear overpaid. He lived the opposite way. He acted as if he was entitled to it — to the car, to the clothes, to the money.”
During working lunches, Tassone would go on about how the school district should act like any private corporation with an $80 million budget. “He thought the salaries of administrators should be as high as possible,” says Piemonte. “That these jobs had a great deal of subtlety and required education. He’d say, ‘Look at the CEO of IBM — they’re making zillions and we’re making $200,000.’ ”
If Tassone was the proud father of the Roslyn family, Pam Gluckin was the fun-loving aunt. Bubbly and industrious, the mother of two liked to poke fun at herself and how hard she worked. If the board assigned her a task, one board member says, “she used to joke, ‘All of you go home, stay with your children; I’ll be working till six o’clock in the morning on this one.’ ” She commuted from middle-class Bellmore but lived very much like a typical Roslyn working mom, with homes in Westhampton Beach and Florida, and a Jaguar with a vanity plate reading DUNENUTN.
Gluckin became one of Tassone’s closest confidantes at the office. She arrived two years before Tassone as a treasurer, and Tassone promoted her until she landed the district’s top-money job, assistant superintendent for business. “They were very comfortable with each other, playful, jovial,” a former board member says. “He made a lot of jokes about how she had a lot of names because she was married so many times — and about her dogs, which he said were like her children.” After staff lunches, Gluckin would stay behind to kibitz with Tassone, sometimes for more than an hour.
“Pam went everywhere with him,” says Eleanor Russell. “She would attend meetings at individual schools, and districtwide committee meetings, like the committee on special education or enrollment. He relied on Pam to do everything. He’d say, ‘Oh, Pam will work it out.’ ” She was the one who handed out the gas credit cards and approved trips to other cities for conferences, and furnished some board members with computers and cell phones. A few employees even got Jeeps.
Some say Tassone simply wasn’t good with numbers — that language was his forte. And if at times Gluckin seemed sloppy, too, Tassone would be protective of her. “One time she gave me a check for too much money for the benefit fund and she told me to just keep it,” Russell remembers. “I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ She said, ‘What’s the big deal? We’ll owe you money in a couple months and that’ll cover it.’ I took the check to Frank and he tried to minimize her mistake, saying, ‘It’s not that important.’ ”
It was pure luck that allowed Tassone to get a look at the anonymous letter before the media did. The letter had been sent in February to a Who’s Who of local politicians, but one copy went to the wrong address. And since the envelope had been disguised to look like it was from the school district, the post office routed it straight to Tassone’s office.
We believe that Dr. Frank Tassone participated in this embezzlement scandal so as to support HIS lavish lifestyle, with the help of Ms. Gluckin. He submitted … his personal credit-card statements, bills for personal vacations and trips, and various household bills … and included them in the cover-up.
But before anyone could start pointing fingers at Tassone, he launched a preemptive defense. “He calls me in, and he says, ‘There’s this letter and none of it’s true,’ ” Piemonte remembers. Secretaries in the building, union leaders, custodians, school administrators, the PTA — they all were summoned, hearing firsthand how shocked he was that the business manager had done this to them — to us, to the Roslyn community. And the community believed him. Some even praised him for being so forthcoming. While spending perhaps a bit too much time trying to find out who the author was, Tassone had little trouble finding ways to discredit the letter itself: The district’s return address on the envelope was misspelled; so was Tassone’s name.
When the D.A. launched its investigation in February, it was Tassone who suggested bringing back Andrew Miller, the accountant who had noticed the missing $250,000 two years earlier, to go through the books of Gluckin’s tenure with a fine-tooth comb. This time, thanks to the leads from the letter, Miller found a more professional style of embezzlement than he’d seen in 2002 — phony companies, for example, instead of just suspicious checks. Soon, Miller put the amount of missing money at $1 million. Newsday caught wind of it and reported it — and the community stepped in, demanding its pound of flesh. Once-sleepy school-board meetings became last spring as stormy as Knesset hearings, lit garishly by those TV crews the board had feared two years earlier.
Still, the target of Roslyn’s anger wasn’t Tassone; it was the school board. The decision to protect Gluckin back in 2002 — to let her resign rather than pressing charges — was seen as collusive, conspiratorial, even Faustian. Tassone, for his part, was seen by Roslynites as valiantly coming to the board’s defense, telling everyone who would listen how upset he was, how betrayed they all felt by Gluckin. “We called it ‘The Seduction of Pam Gluckin,’ ” one former board member says.
State Comptroller Alan Hevesi vowed to audit Roslyn’s books. And before long, the community rallied behind Tassone. The Journal piece naming Roslyn High School one of the nation’s best public high schools was published April 2, and at the next board meeting parents stood up pledging support for their superintendent. In a local newspaper column, Tassone tried to explain why they let Gluckin resign without pressing charges, effectively passing the buck to the accountant and lawyer who had advised the board. “If we had known then everything we know now,” he wrote, “we would certainly have taken a different course of action.”
There was only one problem: The accountant and lawyer wouldn’t take the fall. At an explosive April board meeting, Tom Hession, the attorney who had advised the board in 2002, insisted that he had been telling the board only what was legal, not ethical. Andrew Miller also defended himself, noting that auditors for New York State school districts aren’t supposed to be looking for outright fraud, just irregularities. Board president Bill Costigan, searching for answers, asked Tassone where he had found Tom Hession in the first place. Tassone said he was referred by Carol Hoffman, the district’s usual lawyer. But when Costigan called Hoffman, she was outraged, arguing that Hession had been brought in by Tassone. And when Costigan confronted Tassone, Tassone changed his story, saying Hession was referred by someone else.
Until that moment, most everyone in Roslyn still seemed to believe Tassone had been in the dark about Gluckin. But Costigan couldn’t help but wonder: Did Tassone go shopping for a favorable legal opinion before that meeting in 2002? Had the whole Gluckin resignation been stage-managed by the superintendent? From that point forward, Costigan decided never to meet with Tassone alone.
By late April, Tassone’s office was under siege. Gluckin’s records were rapidly turning out to be fiction. Newsday was filing almost daily public-information requests, uncovering check records for hundreds of thousands of dollars with companies that, once contacted, said they’d received nowhere near that amount. Slowly, others besides Costigan started wondering how Tassone couldn’t have known about this. By then, Tassone was like a wraith, barely there in spirit even when he did bother to show up physically. His cell-phone records show that he spent much of March and April jetting to Las Vegas, Puerto Rico, then California, Florida, and Las Vegas twice again. At first, his employees shrugged and joked that he managed to be out of town every time he had to decide to call a snow day. Now they wondered if he was ducking trouble.
On May 12, Bill Costigan got a call from a lawyer for the school district, telling him to call Andrew Miller as soon as possible.
“We may have uncovered more than $1 million,” Miller said. “And I think it involves Frank.”
The same superintendent who introduced “values-based” education into the school system also had billed the district for his Upper East Side rent, his Mercedes, even jewelry and skin treatments. Miller said he discovered that Tassone had padded his expense account with the most ridiculous purchases — like $33,141 for the dry cleaning that always draped his office conference table.
When Tassone met with Costigan and board member Karen Bodner the next day, Costigan was angry enough to suggest that Tassone consider resigning. But Tassone brushed him off.
“Look at my contract,” they recall Tassone saying. “It covers all ‘reasonable expenses.’ ”
“Maybe we should have bought your clothes, too?” Costigan asked.
“Well, that’s a matter of opinion,” said Tassone.
“What if the D.A. indicts you on this?” Costigan asked.
“That’ll never happen,” said Tassone.
Tassone’s final public appearance in Roslyn turned out to be a PTA meeting on May 28, the Friday before Memorial Day weekend. The missing amount of money had just escalated to $5 million, and Tassone and the board had decided to fire accountant Andrew Miller. The district’s lawyers were also let go.
“We’re your supporters,” said Faith Russo, a mother of two boys at Harbor Hill Elementary. “Why do we have to hear about this from someone else?”
Russo was shocked to see Tassone pointing at her, screaming: “You’re going to listen to me! You’re going to listen to me!” “He wouldn’t let her finish,” says Denyse Dreksler, another mother. “He went from being the therapist to the manic.”
Russo’s heart sank. She realized she was upsetting a powerful person in her life. “I was afraid my kids were gonna get custodians as teachers,” she says.
To her relief, Amy Katz, another PTA member, came to her aid. “You keep changing your story,” she said to Tassone.
And another mom, Lisa Levine, started asking about the district’s new lawsuit against Gluckin.
“I don’t know,” Tassone said, throwing up his hands. “The law firm knows.”
“Is that the same law firm that you just fired?” asked Levine.
Steam seemed to be escaping from Tassone’s ears. Finally he exploded.
“How many of you ladies in here are lawyers?”
Sure enough, Russo, Katz, and Levine were all lawyers. So were other moms in the room.
It took Anthony Annunziato just a few hours at his new job to connect the meat of the scandal to Frank Tassone. On June 1, Roslyn’s new assistant superintendent for business — Pam Gluckin’s long-awaited replacement — started his day by looking into a company called WordPower that, over the past dozen years, had collected $800,000 from Roslyn, mainly for word processing. What bothered him was that the company wasn’t located in Roslyn, but in Manhattan — specifically, at Tassone’s home address, 160 East 88th Street. It took just a few keystrokes, using an Internet reverse phone directory, for Annunziato to find that the number of WordPower CEO Steve Signorelli was connected not just to Tassone’s address but to his apartment.
Before long, Annunziato spoke to Tassone, by phone, in Ft. Lauderdale.
“Frank,” Annunziato said. “These people live in your apartment.”
“Well, they live in my building,” Tassone said. Annunziato couldn’t believe he was sticking to that story. But then Tassone changed tactics.
“We have to figure out how we’re going to spin this,” Tassone said.
“I’m not sure you can,” said Annunziato.
The whole thing reminded Annunziato of the movie No Way Out with Kevin Costner. “He knew he was going to get caught.”
Bill Costigan called an emergency meeting for June 2. Tassone caught wind of it and called Costigan from Florida.
“The board doesn’t meet without the superintendent,” Tassone said coolly.
“You told me you’d be home today,” Costigan said.
“I’ll see what I can do,” Tassone said.
On June 4, the day after he came home, Tassone was relieved of duty by the board.
For an $8 million embezzlement, the Roslyn scandal was remarkably low-tech. The trick, prosecutors say, was in the check-writing. When Gluckin decided to pay her mortgage to Wells Fargo Bank with the district’s money, for example, she simply notated “Wells Fargo” in the check ledger, knowing that the district used a security company called Wells Fargo. In other cases, she abbreviated: “M&T” could be Manufacturers and Traders Trust Co., the mortgage holder on Gluckin’s waterfront home in Bellmore, which was paid a recorded $56,881.96.
It also helped that Tassone appears to have stocked the district with friends. There was a district clerk, Debra Rigano, who arranged travel for the administrators for those trips to Vegas, New Orleans, Boston, and London, and who moonlighted with a travel agency that gave her commissions for her bookings. (One frequent companion of Tassone’s on those trips, it turns out, was his apparent apartment mate, WordPower CEO Steve Signorelli.) Rigano’s aunt happens to be Pam Gluckin, and even after Gluckin resigned in 2002, Rigano was kept on. She was finally let go the same day Tassone resigned, after it was discovered Tassone approved a one-hour overtime charge for her of $1,081.
There was also Tom Galinski, the buildings-and-grounds supervisor, who once worked in the same district as Gluckin and who flew at no expense with Tassone on many of those trips to Las Vegas. Before being hired by Roslyn, Galinski had worked for a contractor he subsequently recommended to redo Roslyn High’s leaking roof. When the leak persisted, Roslyn hired them to do it again, and again, and again.
And there was Al Razzetti, a personnel consultant whom Tassone made an internal auditor — rubber-stamping every bill and check Tassone and Gluckin wrote. Tassone kept him on the payroll even after the board declined to renew his contract. Finally, Razzetti had a sister, Fran Pertusi, whom Tassone made a consultant, earning $300,000 over nine years. Pertusi happened to be a close friend of Tassone’s from his days as superintendent in Levittown.
Who was minding the store? The auditor, Andrew Miller, wasn’t supposed to confirm with every listed check recipient that the money was properly recorded. No school district has that kind of oversight — something Hevesi is addressing now. In the past five years, auditors have checked the books of just fourteen of Long Island’s 124 school districts, even though they spend more than $7 billion in total annually. Tassone and Gluckin, with years of experience between them, must have understood that.
As the scandal unfolded, details of Tassone’s private life became public. In April, he reportedly closed on a house in the Las Vegas suburbs with Jason Daugherty, a onetime motorcycle salesman and exotic dancer, who, it turns out, employees remember visited the office a few times. A clerk in the district, Phyllis Zampino, recognizes Daugherty’s name as the recipient of FedEx packages Tassone sent every week from the district for the past year — since about the time Gluckin was forced to retire. No one in the office seems to know what was in those packages.Between Daugherty and Signorelli, Roslyn had plenty to dish about over the summer. If the implication is that Tassone is gay, many Roslynites now claim they suspected as much all along; they just never said so. “This is a very socially advanced community, very liberal,” one of Tassone’s old employees says. “It’s like it wouldn’t have been cool even to bring it up.” Neither Daugherty nor Signorelli has commented on their sexuality, or anything else.
Hindsight has dredged up all sorts of revisionist judgments of Tassone. Some now remember him as popping herbal vitality pills, and, at one point, fen-phen. He used $56,645 in school money to pay for treatments by a Manhattan weight-loss doctor named Steven Lamm, though he told Newsday he paid for the treatments out of his own pocket. Says one parent: “Suddenly it’s not Frank in a Ford Taurus with his pants way up to here — it’s Frank with his hair slicked back and a face-lift.” Parents and teachers couldn’t fail to notice long light scars behind his ears. A few years into his tenure, he showed up to a parents’ meeting with small bruises around both eyes. He said he had been boxing, but people in Roslyn know an eye tuck when they see one.
Not that any of this raised eyebrows at the time. “He made $250,000,” says Bill Costigan. “He was single. He told us he lived in a rent-stabilized building. So when he showed up in a Brooks Brothers suit, that made perfect sense. And he had a $500 car allowance. You could lease a Mercedes with that.”
Judi Winters, a neighborhood activist who, in almost daily e-mail blasts to Roslyn neighbors, has compared the scandal to Vietnam, tells me she has come up with the perfect way to describe Tassone: “Pecksniffian.” The name refers to Mr. Pecksniff, a Dickens character who exploited the weaknesses of others, and who is selfish and corrupt behind a display of benevolence.
“Frank is a tremendous manipulator of people,” fumes Andrew Miller, “which is probably why some people thought he was a great superintendent.”
And while Peter Mancuso, the assistant district attorney handling the case, does admit that Tassone “was not the person who was actually signing the district’s checks,” the prosecutor insists that Tassone “lies at the heart of this. He’s the person who benefited from those checks.”
Gluckin and Tassone, out on bail, aren’t commenting other than to profess their innocence. Tassone’s lawyer, Ed Jenks, is relying heavily on the porous terms of Tassone’s contract to justify the superintendent’s extravagances. Neighbors speculate that Gluckin may cut a deal to implicate Tassone, while Tassone is expected to cast himself as a hapless naïf, entangled by Gluckin’s schemes. Then there are those who believe Gluckin and Tassone are only part of the problem. Pat Schissel, a nineteen-year veteran of the school board who has been castigated in meetings for having accepted the free use of a cell phone and computer from the district (“Dr. Tassone said ‘Okay,’ ” she told me plaintively), suggests that Roslyn is “a Peyton Place situation. It’s hard to keep your values if you ever had them. I think people can get caught up in that. And Frank may have gotten caught up in that.”
So Roslyn is to blame? Naturally, this isn’t the most popular opinion in town. “There were so many things Frank tended to very carefully,” says Charlie Piemonte. “It would be pretty hard to think he was this bumbling administrator who got swept up.”
At the start of the school year, the scandal still hasn’t stopped claiming careers. There’s a new superintendent, a new school-board president, and a new high-school principal. Bill Costigan has stepped down as president, but he refused to leave the board, saying no one was more duped by Tassone than he was. Of course, in making that claim, he has plenty of company.
“My life is now The Sixth Sense,” says Karen Bodner, who was voted out of office in June. Even now, she stays up late thinking about the night after that fateful meeting in 2002, consoling Tassone in the lobby of a Syracuse hotel where the board was staying for a school-board conference.
“He was so distraught,” she says. “He needed to vent — ‘How could Pam do this?’ And I said, ‘She must be a sociopathic personality, because it seems like such an amateur way of embezzling money — it’s not even clever.’ And we talked for hours — he’s drawing this out of me! And then later I learn that he’s doing the same thing?
“Maybe he was trying to figure out whether any of us suspected him,” she goes on. “Here he’s a Ph.D., he’s a Dickens scholar. He must have thought we were rich people from the North Shore, we were spoiled, we were whatever.”
Still, she can’t help thinking fondly of the man she considered a mentor. As much as she can know anything, Bodner still believes — maybe she needs to believe — that Frank Tassone was capable of kindness.
“I was going through a separation last summer, and he called me from Europe to see how I was doing,” Bodner says. “He seemed legitimately concerned. And I can’t tell you now that he wasn’t. But maybe that phone call was him making sure everyone was behind him. These are questions I’ll never have the answers to.”
“It’s The Music Man,” I suggest.
“Yes, it is,” Bodner says. “That’s exactly what it is.”