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
In late 1985, Garcetti created an environmental-crimes unit which, in effect, supplanted Groveman’s authority. The person he placed in charge was none other than John Lynch, then a young prosecutor with no previous managerial experience. Groveman’s title and salary remained the same, but now he was four bureaucratic levels below Garcetti. Soon after, Groveman took a leave of absence to help lead the campaign for Proposition 65, a landmark environmental initiative.
Then, in June 1986, according to a press account, Garcetti announced that Groveman, should he return, would be assigned to a branch office in a deputy district attorney’s post, that is, a regular prosecutor’s position with no senior administrative responsibilities.
Groveman never returned from his leave of absence, but he also insists he was never demoted.
The environmental strike force now became the territory of the low-key Lynch, rather than the flamboyant, politically threatening Groveman. “It was environmental prosecution’s turn to be hot,” said Lynch. “Sometimes there were more cameras in the courtroom than witnesses. We did large cases, convicted a lot of people. And,” Lynch added graciously, “it was Barry Groveman and Ira Reiner who put that thing together.”
Eventually Garcetti and Reiner had a falling out, leading to Garcetti’s successful challenge of Reiner for the D.A.’s job in 1992.
Groveman’s private practice has often focused on representing companies facing environmental sanctions — polluters, in other words. Purists accused Groveman of crossing to the dark side, while others note that Groveman did what most attorneys do — followed the money in his particular specialty.
“Because he had worked in our office, he got a lot of great cases,” said retired environmental prosecutor Anthony Patchett, who has endorsed Cooley. “I mean, great cases in terms of the amount of money available to a defense attorney. And he’s been defending some of the worst polluters out there.”
Groveman characterizes his defense of polluters as “bringing industry into compliance with regulators.” He also notes that his clients have included government agencies, such as the cities of Montebello and Santa Monica and the L.A. Unified School District.
His work at L.A. Unified, however, underscores how Groveman can be a lightning rod for turmoil. For about a decade, he was the school system’s top outside environmental legal counsel. In 1998, Groveman put together a special “school safety team” in the wake of disclosures about new schools being built on contaminated land. For the first time, Groveman was more of a policy shaper than a hired attorney, though, in fact, the two roles overlapped and sometimes conflicted.
In the case of Jefferson Middle School, for example, some state regulators considered Groveman an obstructionist. “He would question what we wanted to do and try to get by with the minimum safety review,” asserted one midlevel administrator with the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, who requested anonymity. “I hear his speeches about how environmentally good he is, and I didn’t experience that.”
By the time the safety team got to the Belmont Learning Complex, however, Groveman was poised to become the school district’s environmental crusader, a role that coincided with the beginnings of his candidacy. Groveman, working behind the scenes, also helped engineer the removal of Superintendent Ruben Zacarias and, less directly, several of the district’s top bureaucrats. All in the interests of reform.
Said one district insider: “Barry always wanted it both ways: to stay in the district and be an insider and, at the same time, go on the outside and club it to death. What I take umbrage with is that Barry never recused himself, stepped off the district payroll and became an advocate for reform on his own dime.”
Groveman responds that his mission was to serve the public first; he also enjoyed support from a new school-board majority that desired a management shakeup.
Groveman and Garcetti never patched things up, and in 1994, Groveman got a measure of revenge after the district attorney threatened to scale back the environmental-crimes strike force, citing budget woes. Supervisor Gloria Molina put forward Groveman as an outside expert who contended that Garcetti needed to do nothing of the kind. “Garcetti got caught,” said Groveman. “He used this as a pawn in a larger game with the budget. Molina smoked him out with me. He backed down completely and the unit was preserved.”
In 1998, Garcetti thwarted Groveman’s bid to be recommended by Senator Dianne Feinstein for the U.S. Attorney post in Southern California. When Garcetti heard that Groveman was on the short list, he picked up the phone and called the California senator. “I said it would be a disaster for the president, for Janet Reno, and for you — for all of us,” Garcetti told the Weekly. While he didn’t mean for word of his call to come out, “I stand behind what I did.” The job went to someone else.
Last July, when Groveman began to look like a candidate for Garcetti’s job, Garcetti — or his office — allegedly intervened again. At the time, Groveman was getting good press with the school district’s “safety team.” School-board president Genethia Hayes contends that a lower-level staffer in the D.A.’s Office called her at home to pass on information that Groveman had been fired from the D.A.’s Office for incompetence. The caller would not say who had asked her to give Hayes this “heads up.” Garcetti quickly denied asking anyone to smear Groveman.