The real-life scandal behind HBO’s new film Bad Education, out April 25, was originally brought to light by a pretty unexpected source. Bad Education tells the true story of Roslyn High superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) and his assistant superintendent Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) and their dual efforts to successfully embezzle around $11 million from the school district. The partners-in-crime (literally) were eventually caught, but it was a Roslyn High student who first broke the news in the school newspaper, the Hilltop Beacon.
The student, who goes by Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan) in the movie, is shown interviewing Tassone and investigating the shady state of finances at Roslyn High. But who was the real Rachel?
Well, technically there is no exact person that Rachel matches up to; Bad Education took a few creative liberties with Rachel’s character, pulling from the details of a real high school student's hard-hitting investigative piece on the fraudulent activity that was going on between higher-ranking school officials.
“I did some interviews in the process. Rachel does a little more investigative reporting than I did. I had tried to do a Freedom of Information Act request to dig a little bit deeper on some of the documents that I thought revealed more detail about what was going on, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it in time, so I reported the facts that I had from interviews that I was able to do before we published,” Rombom stated.
In a 2004 New York Times story about Rombom’s role in the Roslyn High scandal, Rombom describes how she initially got the scoop. Her co-editor, Sam Floam had given Rombom some information she had procured about a woman who had stolen money from the school district.
“Later that day I, too, received the same information from another source,” Rombom wrote. She added that “Dr. Frank Tassone...had meetings with the leaders of several civic associations and school committees. During these meetings, he informed these individuals that an anonymous letter had surfaced containing information and allegations regarding the theft, as well as other information.” Apparently Tassone, in an interview with Rombom, denied that the information in the letter was true.
Rombom was close to walking away from the story, explaining that the story “seemed sketchy” and that she had “so little time to gather information,” since the school admin was hard to get a hold of on short notice. But Rombom’s advisor encouraged her to pursue the story, telling her, she said, that “it was our responsibility to report the news.”
So Rombom attended a public session convened by the Board of Education. “The board president, William Costigan, read a statement regarding the embezzlement,” Rombom explained. Later on, Rombom interviewed the assistant superintendent for human resources and talked to Tassone over the phone. (The NYT article doesn’t explain what kind of information she gathered from either HR or Tassone.)
Rombom told the NYT that as she put the story together “I was informed that I would not be able to use the name of the woman accused of embezzling the money. This struck me a bit odd, since I, along with a handful of other community members already knew that she had been identified as Pamela C. Gluckin.”
As we learn from Bad Education, Gluckin was the first to be outed — Tassone threw her under the bus in order to save himself — but Tassone’s involvement was soon after uncovered and both served prison sentences. Tassone was released in 2010 and Gluckin in 2011.
After the Hilltop Beacon published the story that focused on Gluckin’s crimes for their March issue, major publications picked it up and the story spread like wildfire.