By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
After years of ignoring and deflecting criticism on the Belmont Learning Complex -- the most expensive high school ever built -- Los Angeles school officials must now confront a new and blistering critique from their own internal auditor.
Don Mullinax, appointed in January to the new post of director of special investigations, asserted on Tuesday that district staff have violated a slew of laws, ignored conflicts of interest among project attorneys and consultants, ducked responsibility, and resisted efforts to find out what happened.
“Every time the district had an opportunity to make the right call, they failed,” said Mullinax, shortly after the report‘s release on Tuesday.
Mullinax added that he had “referred possible criminal violations to various law-enforcement agencies,” but declined to say which agencies.
The $200 million Belmont project -- launched at a time when the district was strapped for funds -- has left the school system with a desperately needed, half-finished school that may never be completed. And even if it is, millions of dollars will have been wasted in the process of reducing safety risks at the site, an old oil field.
Some of the violations were errors of omission, such as failing to conduct proper tests or notify oversight agencies, but the auditor was not content to blame ignorance or inattention. “The staff knew, or had to know, that those laws were on the books, and they failed to comply with those,” said Mullinax. “The professional staff misled the school board.” He added, “It’s very difficult for me. I‘m saying my employer violated the law.”
Bureaucrats also resisted his investigation. “One week ago today,” said Mullinax, “we received a box of documents from a senior official” that had been requested in March, at the start of the investigation. “I was hired to be a watchdog, not a house pet . . . For some reason, they don’t want to cooperate. They don‘t take us seriously.”
While also faulting state oversight the report singles out for specific blame a stunning array of current and former senior officials. They include:
. Dave Koch, the district’s top manager, in charge of all non-academic operations in the $7 billion school system;
. Dominic Shambra, the retired planning director who was chiefly responsible for Belmont;
. David W. Cartwright, Shambra‘s consulting attorney;
. Richard K. Mason, the district’s senior lawyer;
. Robert Niccum, head of the real estate division;
THE Mullinax REPORTSTATES that those still working for the district should “be disciplined . . . up to and including termination.”
The report also proposes initiating legal action for “breach of professional care or duty” against O’Melveny & Myers, the prestigious law firm that guided numerous Belmont decisions; McLarand, Vasquez & Partners, the project architect; and three environmental firms that worked on the project. Mullinax also recommends that unless the developer, a partnership anchored by the Kajima Corp., accepts financial responsibility for part of the Belmont fiasco, the district take the developer to court.
One reporter asked Mullinax if he was actually ready to decapitate the school district‘s entire senior management. Only the school board can answer that question, responded Mullinax, a former Defense Department auditor and senior Senate investigator. Board members themselves violated state regulations regarding Belmont, he noted, though he has no proof that they knowingly flouted state law.
Regardless, the newly elected school-board majority -- one that used Belmont as an alarum in the recent elections -- has all the cover it needs for housecleaning, all the way up to the office of Superintendent Zacarias. Though not singling him out as a prime offender, Mullinax asserts that board members should consider Zacarias’ “failure to supervise the Belmont project in a diligent, professional and effective manner as part of his next scheduled performance evaluation.”
Zacarias immediately defended his actions as appropriate and even proactive, but also promised to act on the report‘s recommendations, which include, in effect, an overhaul of how the school system does business. Neither Zacarias nor school-board members had much of substance to say about the report, which was as new to them as it was to a host of reporters who swarmed district offices for a copy Tuesday morning. Other administrators named in the report declined comment through a district spokesman.
In the course of a 187-page report supported by 14 volumes of original documentation, Mullinax lays out a host of regulations that should have governed the Belmont proj-ect and demonstrates step by step, with biting detail, who fell short of the mark and when. Most of the report focuses on the environmental review and the construction process, and finds that, ultimately, construction was not managed by the district at all -- especially after the retirement of planning director Shambra.
“Even as late as last week,” Mullinax told reporters, “we were wondering who was in charge of Belmont . . . They just kept pointing fingers at each other, and saying that they were all just coordinators and working on this together. That was very troubling.”