Stories & Grievances
The Belmont Learning Center in Los Angeles: The Most Expensive Public School in America
The School, built on an earthquake fault and toxic dump, is the ENRON of LAUSD. People will be processing for years the corrupt process that allowed almost $1/2billion to be spent on what may be an unusable site.
Belmont no crime but ...
A disaster of biblical proportions, D.A.says
By Beth Barrett, L.A. daily News, March 3, 2003
A two-year investigation of Los Angeles Unified School District's unfinished Belmont Learning Center found a "public works disaster of biblical proportions" but no criminality, Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley said Monday.
Cooley said he was disappointed that the $1.6 million investigation failed to unearth evidence that would have led to criminal prosecutions over the $166 million downtown high school, which sits atop a shallow oil field and an earthquake fault.
"Would I have liked to haul someone in by the collar? Absolutely ... It would have been a happy day," Cooley said during a news conference at which he described how prosecutors had felt a deep and "visceral" anger toward what the LAUSD had done.
"But we have to go where the facts lead us and that's where we went."
Superintendent Roy Romer said while "we are all very sorry mistakes were made on this project, ... what this is talking about is the old LAUSD. We are completely different now."
"We have put in place many of the changes and environmental controls that are suggested in the reports," he said. "We are confident of our ability to move forward with the aggressive building program that taxpayers have supported to relieve overcrowding the district."
Romer is exploring whether Belmont can be salvaged, possibly in a new reconfiguration on the site, and at what cost.
School board President Caprice Young said she was surprised there were no indictments, adding, "Everyone needs to take the findings to heart." Board member David Tokofsky, who has been a leading critic of Belmont, said plans for the 5,000-student school were faulty from the start.
"Whether it's malfeasance or misfeasance, it never made sense for kids educationally," Tokofsky said.
Prosecutors said the report underscored the importance of a strong and independent inspector general.
LAUSD Inspector General Don Mullinax produced an exhaustive report on Belmont in September 1999, and referred seven key players to federal, state and local prosecutors for possible violations of environmental, hazardous waste and education laws.
No agency prosecuted based on those referrals, and Cooley attacked District Attorney Gil Garcetti's finding of noncriminality during the 2000 campaign, which Garcetti lost. Cooley said he broadened this investigation's scope, but still found no financial crimes, including bribery, grand theft or securities law violations.
Mullinax declined comment.
Roger Carrick, Mullinax's former special counsel on Belmont, issued a statement charging Cooley with lowering the bar for environmental compliance "when it comes to protecting our children and their schools."
"Mr. Cooley should be ashamed of himself. Today Mr. Cooley simply reaffirmed his office's prior whitewash of Belmont."
Cooley said the investigation was anything but a whitewash.
"I know what our office did. I know what the lawyers did in this case. I'm very pleased and proud of what we did," he said.
This was the second high-profile District Attorney's Office investigation within five months to end without prosecutions. In November, Cooley declined to file charges in 82 Rampart cases investigated by the Los Angeles Police Department, citing insufficient evidence and the unrealiability of former rogue cop Rafael Perez as a witness.
Cooley said the LAUSD bungled Belmont from the outset by not using a competitive bid process, and warned the district against ever again using a "design build" process in which taxpayers risk paying more.
Dominic Shambra, who oversaw Belmont for the LAUSD until he retired in January 1998, felt vindicated.
"So we're clear, what's the news? It's not a surprise."
Shambra said Belmont was the victim of its own "complexity," and of union and political forces. "It was strictly bad politics."
But Shambra said he agreed with the D.A.'s assessment of the district at the time.
"The district needed to be hit; they didn't know what the hell they were doing," he said. "I admit the district needed to be turned around."
Prosecutors investigated whether Shambra might have been bribed by Kajima to support selection of the development team, but found he had not been.
The $6,279 check from Kajima Construction Services on March 20,1999, went to a firm, N.S. Construction, owned by Shambra's son, Nick, who endorsed the check to his father for partial repayment of debts.
"Dominic Shambra's interpretation of the circumstantial evidence of the $6,279 check is reasonable, consistent with the evidence, and points to innocence," the report said.
Shambra's attorney was Curt Livesay, whom Cooley since has hired to be his second-in-command. Cooley said Livesay recused himself from all aspects of the Belmont investigation.
Scott Wildman, the former Burbank-Glendale assemblyman who led the state's review of Belmont, called the report "really disappointing."
"That's amazing," said Wildman, now a consultant. "This fiasco, I think, was rife with stretching the law at least. We did our Assembly report, and we felt clearly this could be classified as a toxic waste area."
David Koff, a Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union Local 11 researcher who was a key critic of the project, questioned the report.
"I doubt we've heard the last of Belmont, any more than we've heard the last of Rampart. I don't think the report tells the whole story."
Anthony G. Patchett, who headed the Belmont Task Force until Cooley removed him July 21, 2001, said the report contradicts what was in the LAUSD inspector general's report and the findings of his investigation.
Patchett said grand jury time reserved for Belmont was canceled, and that he was gagged last November -- after having left the task force -- in an advisory letter from Cooley's office not to disclose anything he learned during the investigation.
Cooley said Patchett "passionately" believed there must be criminal culpability involved in such a public works disaster.
But the D.A. said that over a three-day briefing period in July 2001, it became "very clear" that the criminal theories presented were not supported by facts.
Cooley said the grand jury was used to subpoena financial records, but that the 343 witnesses cooperated voluntarily with investigators.
Here are the highlights of Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley's Belmont Learning Center investigation:
" The District Attorney's Office concluded that the school site is not contaminated with hazardous waste, as defined in California's Hazardous Waste Control Law. Methane and hydrogen sulfide gases were the product of an oil field and, as such, not subject to state law.
" The site could be managed satisfactorily by installing a mitigation system, as is done at similar building sites in Los Angeles.
" The Los Angeles Unified School District, Temple Beaudry Partners and Turmer/Kajima "acted in a reasonable manner" in attempting to address the soil's gas problems as they were discovered.
" Attorney David Cartwright, with the firm O'Melveny & Myers, did not have a conflict of interest in working on Belmont for the LAUSD, while the firm had a business relationship with Kajima International. Cartwright was not a "public officer," the firm had at most a "remote interest" and the LAUSD had waived any potential conflict.
OPENING MEETING LAW:
" Some LAUSD Board of Education meetings may have failed to comply with the state's Brown Act, but "intentional misconduct" could not be established. The board has since modified its open meeting practices and now appears to be in "full compliance" with the law.
" There was insufficient evidence to prove that Kajima bribed or attempted to bribe LAUSD Planning Director Dominic Shambra. "There is a legally viable alternative explanation of funds passing between them."
" Neither failure to disclose possible retail use for a part of Belmont nor environmental concerns met the legal test of "material omission" in issuing tax-exempt securities.
" The district was "fully committed to preserving" the tax-exempt status of these certificates of participation.
" A review of each claim of a billing violation showed that "neither (Temple) Beaudry Partners, nor Turner/Kajima, nor the six subject subcontractors intentionally overbilled for work performed on the project." The LAUSD's breach of contract and its handling of the project after it was shut down were the main sources of billing problems.
" The theory of a conspiracy was "highly speculative" and did not meet the "stringent evidentiary requirements" for a criminal prosecution.
" There was no direct evidence from a purported co-conspirator, insider or knowledgeable witness of an illegal agreement, which would be needed to prove a criminal conspiracy.
March 20, 2002 Education Week
Los Angeles Revives Beleaguered
Belmont ProjectBy Andrew Trotter
The Los Angeles school district, facing an urgent need to relieve overcrowding and seat thousands of new students, is pushing forward with construction of the vast Belmont Learning Center, the controversial facility that is believed to be the nation's most expensive public school.
The school board voted 6-1 last week to allow Superintendent Roy Romer to negotiate a contract with a construction group to finish work on the partially completed school, which rises above real estate that includes part of an oil field. The 737,000-student district, the nation's second largest, expects to bring the final deal to a vote within 90 days.
The board halted work on Belmont in 2000 after environmental testing of the 34-acre site revealed the presence of poisonous hydrogen sulfide and methane in the soil and a bitter public debate erupted over the potential health risk to students. ("L.A. Chief Recommends Abandoning Belmont," Jan. 26, 2000.)
Many Los Angeles residents doubted the school would ever open. But in December, at Mr. Romer's urging and after an independent panel of experts concluded that the site could be made safe, the board decided to restart the project.
"This is a victory for the children of Los Angeles," Mr. Romer said in a statement, which also noted that the planned 4,000-student high school would reduce the number of students bused out of their neighborhoods when it opens two or three years from now.
"This is a huge vote of confidence that we're going to be able to build all the schools [needed]," said school board President Caprice Young. The district plans to open 78 new schools over the next five years while adding on to 60 existing buildings.
Ms. Young, who voted to stop the project two years ago, reversed her stance last week, because "we're under new management," she said in an interview. "Two years ago, we had a completely incompetent facilities staff. It's not the case now."
The cost to finish the school is from $67 million to $87 million, officials said. Added to the $154 million the district has already spent on the site, that apparently would make the school the most expensive ever built in the nation.
As a result of the Belmont saga, the California legislature passed a law requiring potential school sites to undergo an environmental review by the state's Department of Toxic Substances Control before new schools are built.
The new construction contract, to be negotiated with the nonprofit Alliance for a Better Community, is to include the installation of an elaborate system of pipes beneath the entire 34-acre site, not just the portions that were the focus of concerns. The so-called "active mitigation" system, recommended by the expert panel, would draw hydrogen sulfide and methane out of the soil.
The system would cost $10 million to $15 million. In addition, a monitoring system to detect minute levels of toxins would be operated by an outside contractor, at a cost of $150,000 per year for 30 years, district officials said.
Public-interest lawyers sue for students, parents
By Helen Gao
Outraged that the District Attorney's Office has not prosecuted anyone for the Belmont Learning Center fiasco, two public-interest lawyers have filed a lawsuit on behalf of students and parents, seeking restitution from companies involved in building the environmentally plagued downtown campus.
Attorneys Mark Adams and Roger Carrick filed suit late Thursday, one day before the three-year statute of limitations was to run out for Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley to file charges on alleged environmental crimes. Cooley expects to issue a report in the future.
"It's fair to say all of us involved in this effort believe you couldn't look at yourself in the mirror and say I have a chance to do something, but didn't,' said Carrick, who helped the Los Angeles Unified School District investigate the Belmont scandal.
"This lawsuit may not succeed, but we could not let a deadline pass without fighting for the children. It's absolutely astonishing that corporations in the heart of the city that affects children would get a pass from the district attorney.'
Filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, the 27-page suit charges a host of private corporations and individuals with fraudulent concealment, misrepresentation, conspiracy, grand theft, illegal deposit of hazardous substances, unlawful business practices and conduct in violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
The allegations in the lawsuit largely mirror findings of a Sept. 13, 1999, report by LAUSD Inspector General Don Mullinax, who found widespread wrongdoing, incompetence and gross mismanagement of the Belmont project.
Among the defendants named in the suit are developer Temple Beaudry Partners, one-time district counsel O'Melveny & Myers, and architectural firm McLarand, Vasquez & Partners, as well as construction giants Kajima Urban Development Corp. and Turner Construction Co.
The lawsuit also lists as defendants David Cartwright, a partner at O'Melveny & Myers, whom the school district unsuccessfully sued for rendering bad legal advice; Dominic Shambra, a retired LAUSD administrator who conceived the Belmont project; Kenneth J. Reizes, a project executive for the Belmont developer; and Ernesto Vasquez, an architect.
Doug Dowie, spokesman for Kajima, the leading partner in Temple Beaudry Partners, declined to comment, saying the firm has not yet seen the lawsuit. Other defendants did not return phone calls for comment. Many had denied any wrongdoing. The District Attorney's Office also did not return a call for comment.
The suit demands restitution for parents of 10,000 students who otherwise would have been able to attend Belmont, their neighborhood school, if it had opened as originally scheduled in 1999.
The board halted construction of Belmont in January 2000 because of environmental concerns. Sixty percent built, the school has already cost the district some $175 million, and about $100 million is expected to be spent to complete the campus.
As Belmont sits unused, Carrick contends that children's education in the neighborhood is getting shortchanged because they are forced to attend overcrowded campuses or ride buses to faraway schools.
"We want to get for the children the value of the education they would have enjoyed in a new school with a new curriculum, with a new group of teachers and administrators who are dedicated to their neighborhood,' said Carrick.
Among the plaintiffs is parent Fernando Contreras, who has two children, Veronica and Geraldo, who would have gone to Belmont if the school had opened. The Contreras' home was condemned to make way for the school.
"It's been twenty-something years that (school officials) have been promising they are going to build schools,' said Contreras. "I don't know how they ended up spending all this money and not built anything.'
When children ride buses to attend faraway schools, he said, they miss out on before- or after-school programs and therefore are disadvantaged and deserve restitution.
No current school district employees or former school board members are named in the suit, even though they have been faulted in the past for their role in the development of Belmont. Carrick said he chose to focus on private corporations because he felt they were most responsible for the debacle. The district, he said, had relied on them for their expertise.
Both Carrick and Adams are veteran public-interest attorneys. Carrick has worked with the city attorney against tobacco companies on secondhand smoke and fought to stop the spraying of pesticides in Los Angeles to kill fruit flies. Adams has spent years in the Belmont neighborhood fighting against slumlords.
"Belmont represents everything that is wrong with the LAUSD,' said Adams.
"It does really represent everything that is wrong with how L.A. operates. How can it be that a public agency spends $175 million on a school that never opens, and nobody is jailed for that? How can that be?'
Full Disclosure Network" 337 Washington Blvd. #1, Marina del Rey, CA 90292
(310) 833-4449 fax (310) 919-2890 www.fulldisclosure.net
Thursday, August 19, 2004
FROM Full Disclosure's ARCHIVES 2003: LAPD POLITICS & THE MAYOR
Los Angeles, CA : From the Full Disclosure Archives historical interviews on timely topics which relate to current affairs, THESE are MUST SEE programs, for the content, which predicted what is happening right now. Released TODAY August 19, 2004, for viewing on the website at www.fulldisclosure.net.
According to retired LAPD Assistant Chief David Gascon, Los Angeles Mayor Jim Hahn wanted to become mayor and needed to get the Rampart scandal behind him right away. "That is why he told the Council the Federal Consent Decree was in the City's best interest."
"James Hahn pushed the L. A. City Council to adopt an agreement that will cost millions of dollars and hundreds of police officers" Gascon told Full Disclosure host Leslie Dutton in a program that was originally cablecast in 2003. Gascon's 2003 prediction of costs and officers required to comply with the Federal Consent Decree has proved accurate, as the Los Angeles City Council Budget Committee has struggled the past two years to provide necessary funding to meet the Court's demand. LAPD Chief William Bratton has confirmed the cost will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars and 300 police officers are assigned to implement the monitoring process.
When asked if L. A. Police Chiefs were vulnerable (to political pressure) LAPD Assistant (retired) Chief Dave Gascon told Full Disclosure Network" , "A Police Chief cannot say "No" to the Mayor. The Police Chief will do whatever the Mayor or the Mayor's staff tells him to do. It was very difficult watching that, especially when there was conflict. But I've seen it develop over the last five years and I've seen it get to the point now where I think it is totally unacceptable."
In his interview with Emmy Award winning host Leslie Dutton, Gascon asserts that the City Council had a similar agenda as they were looking for an easy way out and the Federal Consent Decree presented that opportunity. According to Gascon. "It was pure politics". "They were looking for a way to "reform" the LAPD". When asked if the Council knew how much it would cost Gascon replied "they didn't have a clue and did not even ask".
Thursday, August 05, 2004
IRS Propaganda on Belmont Bonds?
Los Angeles, CACritical reports of the Belmont Learning Center were labeled as "Propaganda" by Dominic Shambra, former Director of Planning & Development for the LAUSD. On this Part 2 of the Emmy Award winning FULL DISCLOSURE cable TV program, Shambra singled out a letter from the Internal Revenue Service challenging the tax-exempt status of the Certificate of Participation bonds sold for Belmont. Shambra said that the IRS wrote "the same type of propaganda" that was used by David Koff of the Hotel & Restaurant Workers Union and Scott Wildman, Chair of the California Joint Legislative Audit Committee.
As for the allegations of conflict of interest by LAUSD outside legal counsel David Cartwright and his law firm, O'Melveny & Myers, Shambra said, "I trusted them completely. We were fully aware. In fact, I can actually say that Dave was probably the toughest of the negotiators on Kajima" (the developer and client of O'Melveny & Myers). With regard to the earthquake fault over which the Belmont school project was built, Shambra said, "We actually knew that there was an earthquake fault. The law says if it's an active fault, recognized fault, you cannot build the building on top of that fault. That's an inactive fault. So they don't have to tear down those buildings."
Full Disclosure host Leslie Dutton has been conducting a series of interviews with local prosecutors, LAUSD legal counsel, and LAUSD administrators involved in the Belmont Learning Center investigations. The series is entitled "BELMONT: The World's Most Expensive High School". Costs to date for the development are $175 million, which was financed in 1997 with non-voter approved, tax-exempt bonds known as Certificates of Participation (COPs). The Los Angeles Unified School Board has already approved an additional $110 million for remediation of environmental hazards on the Belmont campus, which was built on top of 1,000 closed oil wells and is plagued with methane gas and hydrogen sulfide. On Tuesday, June 22, 2004, the LAUSD Board approved the project's environmental impact report, paving the way for completion of the stymied project.
Thursday, July 29, 2004
No Bidding on Belmont Costs?
Los Angeles, CAAccording to Dominic Shambra, former Director of Planning and Development for the Los Angeles Unified School District, there was no competitive bidding for the Belmont Learning Center contract. "It was a request for proposal and it wasn't one that asked for a bid." In this Part 1 of a 2 part interview, Shambra told Emmy Award winning FULL DISCLOSURE host Leslie Dutton about his role. "I was one of five on the committee that recommended (the developer/contractor) to the Board of Education." "My responsibility was to coordinate for the District those activities which were done by lawyers, the business people." And, in response to his battles with the oversight committee members, Shambra said he wore a railroad engineer's cap to one meeting because they said I was railroading this whole project. We were very strong and we were very aggressive and we stood up for what we believed."
Tuesday, July 13, 2004
Prosecutors: Elected vs: appointed
PROSECUTORS: Elected vs Appointed WHAT IS PUBLIC JUSTICE?
Los Angeles, CAU.S. Attorney Debra Yang describes the public justice system as "doing the right thing for the public, encapsulating what issues are facing the public" Appearing on the Emmy Award winning Full Disclosure public affairs program in a two-part interview Yang was asked about the differences between local prosecutors and the U. S. Attorney. She said by not being elected to her position she is free to do justice because she does not have to raise funds and does not have to ask the community to support an election campaign.
Yang also noted that when local and state prosecutors decline to prosecute cases, the U. S. Attorney can become involved if there is Federal money or laws involved. She pointed out that the U.S. Attorney has a tremendous amount of discretion over what kinds of crimes to address, what kinds of cases to bring and the like.
Tuesday, July 06, 2004
PUBLIC SCHOOLS & GOVERNMENT VENTURES
Los Angeles, CAScott Wildman criticized schools and government entities involved in inappropriate financial dealings during a no-holds barred interview with Leslie Dutton on the Emmy Award winning Full Disclosure program.
Wildman, the former Chair of the California Joint Legislative Audit Committee, condemned the "Joint Venture" concept for schools saying, "the problem is, a school district or any government agency is not really in the business of making money, because there's a risk whenever you're in the business of making money. You can't risk the future of our kids."
Wildman also pointed out opposition to his Investigation/Audit Reports. "There was considerable influence from members of the legislature, including the then Speaker(Assemblyman Bob Hertzberg) of the legislature, in trying to suppress (Reports) like the one we did on the Hawaiian Gardens Investigation." Referring to a gambling Casino project financed with public redevelopment funds.
This Part 2 of the Full Disclosure Wildman interview is set to air world-wide on the Internet 24 hours a day, 7 days a week starting on Tuesday, July 6, 2004 on the STREAMING page at http://www.fulldisclosure.net The first 30 days the program will be provided to viewers FREE as a public service and thereafter available online in the program catalog. The program will also be featured on 40 cable systems throughout California for the next six months.
Wildman told Full Disclosure "The State of California needs to be the kind of entity that doesn't risk the future of these kids, that doesn't put millions of dollars into harebrained schemes and in the end have nothing for those kids, no school for those kids to go to."
Wednesday, June 23, 2004
Belmont Failure: LAUSD's Risky Scheme
Los Angeles, CA4/30/04 Scott Wildman, former Chair of the California Joint Legislative Audit Committee whose reveals how the Los Angeles Unified School District evaded environmental laws on commercial developments by promoting the Belmont Learning Center as a "Joint Use" project. "Our report fairly clearly demonstrated that the real goal of the school construction project during that period of time was NOT to build schools. It was to try to generate more money for the District. "There were seven projects like this in LAUSD and none of themNONE OF THEM have ever generated very much money for the District. And ALL of these project essentially failed."
The Wildman interview is set to air world-wide on the Internet 24 hours a day, 7 days a week starting on Thursday, June 24, 2004 on the STREAMING page at http://www.fulldisclosure.net The first 30 days the program will be provided to viewers FREE as a public service and thereafter available online in the program catalog. The program will also be featured on and on 40 cable systems throughout California for the next six months.
Wildman told Full Disclosure "you have to realize that school districts were not accustomed to swimming with sharks, with developers, and in many cases developers were able to sell them a bill of goods which actually cost the districts money instead of generating the kind of money they had anticipated.
Full Disclosure host Leslie Dutton has been conducting a series of interviews entitled "BELMONT: The World's Most Expensive High School". Costs to date for the development are $175 million, which was financed in 1997 with non-voter approved, tax-exempt bonds known as Certificates of Participation (COP's). The Los Angeles Unified School Board has already approved an additional $110 million for remediation of environment hazards on the Belmont campus, which was built on top of one thousand closed oil wells and is plagued with methane gas and other toxic substances. On Tuesday, June 22nd the school board approved the project's environmental impact report, paving the way for the project to be completed.
Monday, June 14, 2004
Investigators Shutdown Belmont??
Los Angeles, CA David Cartwright, Senior Partner of O'Melveny & Myers, who served as outside counsel to LAUSD on the Belmont Learning Center development told Full Disclosure that the LAUSD Inspector General, his legal counselors and Board member David Tokofsky caused the costly shut-down of the Belmont Learning Center project. He also claimed they didn't have a clue about school construction or oil and gas.
In this two-part interview with Emmy Award winning host Leslie Dutton, David Cartwright described the LAUSD legal actions on the controversial Belmont Learning Center project and the circumstances leading to dismissal of the law suit against him and O'Melveny & Myers. The program is set to air world-wide on the Internet 24 hours a day, 7 days a week starting on Monday, June 14, 2004 on the STREAMING page at http://www.fulldisclosure.net For the first 30 days the program will be provided to viewers FREE as a public service and thereafter available on DVD, VHS and transcripts, online from the program catalog.
You can view this interview and other Belmont programs at our website at our website http://www.fulldisclosure.net/ via media streaming media and on 40 cable channels throughout California. A cable channel guide with airtimes is available on the website. (6/10/04) In addition to the Inspector General, DAVID CARTWRIGHT, LAUSD outside counsel
PHOTO of the Belmont Learning Center Site