One of the five men sworn in Monday at City Hall as the city’s newest police officers is no longer with the department, city Police Chief Mark Chaires confirmed Tuesday.
The confirmation came a day after questions regarding the educational qualifications of candidate John A. Laviano, a 22-year-old decorated Afghanistan war veteran, were raised by The Daily Gazette based on information provided by the department in a press release.
The release cited Laviano’s educational background, including a university degree, but a quick Daily Gazette Internet search revealed questions about the legitimacy of the college cited. Those questions led to a department inquiry, with a final determination being that Laviano did not meet the educational requirements for the position, Acting Mayor Gary McCarthy confirmed Tuesday.
Prospective officers are required to have 30 accredited college-level course hours, according to the department website.
Chaires also confirmed the departure Tuesday afternoon, noting the separation was not the result of misconduct on Laviano’s part.
Chaires referred further questions to the Schenectady County Civil Service Department. “He is no longer employed here,” Chaires said. “For details, you can check with civil service.”
McCarthy, who swore in all five officers at a ceremony Monday, said the county allowed Laviano to take the civil service test without him having fulfilled the proper educational requirements. He believed the separation took the form of a resignation.
“It’s unfortunate,” McCarthy said. “We spend a lot of time and money on these background checks. It’s a disappointment.”
Asked about the department’s background check — how it didn’t catch the mistake apparently made by civil service — McCarthy said, “it does raise some serious questions in terms of that level of review.”
The department’s check, McCarthy said, includes interviews of family, friends and associates, checking the applicant’s character. “It’s unfortunate. It’s an embarrassment,” McCarthy said. “Fortunately, it was caught.”
Laviano was set to enter the Zone 5 Law Enforcement Academy today, along with his fellow recruits. Instead, the four remaining recruits will enter.
Regarding the county civil service’s position, Schenectady County spokesman Joe McQueen said late Tuesday afternoon that the situation was a result of problems on both sides. “It does appear that the county, as well as the city, did make an error,” McQueen said, “and we’ll continue to look into the issue to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
The mistake comes after the department has worked hard to overhaul its image in recent years. Department brass, under Chaires and Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett, have worked to fire a number of officers for misconduct.
New recruits, with the background checks that comes with them, have been seen as a way of improving the department’s public image.
The questions concerning Laviano’s qualifications centered on the college cited on the department’s press release announcing the swearing-in ceremony.
While other new officers in the release hailed from local colleges, including Siena and Schenectady County Community College, the release cited Laviano as a “2010 graduate of Ashwood University majoring in criminal justice.”
But a quick Daily Gazette Internet search Monday afternoon instead raised questions about Ashwood University’s legitimacy. The Daily Gazette brought the information to the attention of Chaires Monday afternoon. Later in the afternoon, Chaires confirmed the department was looking into the matter.
Soldiers in Afghanistan and elsewhere are offered classes during downtime. Many of those classes are recognized by colleges and universities for credit, an official with the Army confirmed. It was unclear if Laviano took advantage of those classes.
Soldiers also have many opportunities to attend institutions once they return home, the official said, including through the GI Bill and other federal and Army programs.
But Ashwood University is not listed as accredited by the U.S. Department of Education. The accrediting institutions cited on Ashwood University’s website also don’t appear as approved institutions by either the U.S. Department of Education or the Washington-based Council for Higher Education Accreditation, an official with the council said.
The website for Ashwood University, the first result under a Google search, raised the most red flags. The main tagline on the page reads “Get Accredited Life Experience Online Degrees for what you already know” then “No need to take admission exams, no need to study.”
“The only qualification we require for a degree is that you should have an adequate work, life, military experience or classroom education,” the site reads. There are also suggestions that people can get degrees, with supporting documents, within 15 days for as low as $725.
An inquiry with the state Department of Education resulted in a referral to a state of Oregon Student Assistance Commission listing. That listing has Ashwood University as based in Florida, Pakistan and possibly Texas. The listing also calls Ashwood “fake.”
Laviano is a decorated Afghanistan veteran. He enlisted in the Army in November 2006, signing up in Guilderland, according to Army records.
He completed his training in 2007, then was sent to Afghanistan in January 2009 as an infantryman. He served there until January 2010, then moved to the reserves in September 2010, Army records show.
He was awarded the Afghanistan Campaign Medal with Campaign Star; Army Commendation Medal (3); National Defense Service Medal; Global War on Terror Service Medal; Army Service Ribbon; Overseas Service Ribbon; NATO Medal; and Combat Infantry Badge.
Speaking to The Daily Gazette after Monday’s ceremony, but before questions about his education background surfaced, Laviano said he wanted to bring his good character to the department.
“I saw people over there that are in need of help,” Laviano said of his service in Afghanistan, “and that’s what my main goal was in Afghanistan was, to help the people of Afghanistan, and I want to assist the people of Schenectady as much as I can.”
In Afghanistan he saw combat “a lot,” he said.
He was at the ceremony with his wife and family members.
Efforts to reach Laviano on Tuesday were unsuccessful.
Chaires declined to respond to questions Tuesday about the department’s background check on Laviano, only referring questions to civil service. At Monday’s ceremony, though, Chaires cited the checks as ensuring the department had the best candidates.
“As I said a long time ago, in our quest to become an outstanding police agency, the most important raw material you have is your people, your personnel,” Chaires said. “So we want to make sure that we bring the best people in here.
“We’re not just about filling vacancies.”
Chaires said in each candidate, the department looks for something that will make the department better.
Candidates are given a physical fitness test. They’re then given a personal history questionnaire, with the department looking for “basically everything that happened to them since the time they were born,” Chaires said.
That included educational history, Chaires said then. He also said they talk to their colleges.
“We’ll basically talk to anybody and everybody we can,” Chaires said at the ceremony, “and we’ve done that and I will tell you, that everybody we’ve talked to gave us glowing remarks about these candidates.”