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Conflicts 101 

L.A. schools’ environmental czar dogged by complaints of too many interests

Wednesday, Apr 26 2000
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Amid the conflagration of the Belmont Learning Complex scandal, one figure has stood out as Mr. Clean, in the most literal sense of the word. Environmental consultant Angelo Bellomo, a former state toxics official, has pushed and cajoled a recalcitrant school-district bureaucracy first to admit it had a school-safety problem and then to do something about it -- not only at Belmont, but at campuses across the city. His work has even led to changes in state law, including a review process to ensure the safety of new schools.

Last month, Bellomo agreed to be interim head of the school district’s beleaguered safety branch, making him the seventh health administrator in the last three and a half years. The talented Bellomo, it was thought, could restore both stability and credibility to a safety branch still operating in crisis mode.

But Bellomo‘s own record is starting to draw fire. In Cudahy, officials have requested his removal from safety supervision at a local school. Questions also have arisen over Bellomo’s continued relationship with Environmental Strategies Corporation, a company that forwards him pay for jobs outside the district, even as he oversees ESC‘s work inside the school system.

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Bellomo’s biggest headache, however, comes courtesy of O‘Melveny & Myers, the city’s most prestigious law firm, which has been sued by L.A. Unified over its handling of the Belmont complex project. O‘Melveny’s litigation strategy includes gathering evidence that Bellomo solicited campaign contributions from environmental firms seeking contracts with the school district to help unsuccessful district-attorney candidate Barry Groveman. Bellomo also has run afoul of attorneys in litigation not related to Belmont. In a dispute over the contaminated site of a Hollywood strip mall, plaintiff attorneys have attacked Bellomo for allegedly strong-arming a state official to take sides.

Bellomo maintains that the allegations of impropriety are entirely without merit. For their part, school-district officials have good reason to want to believe him, because Bellomo remains at the center of ongoing environmental-reform efforts.

Cudahy‘s issue with Bellomo is his past performance, starting in the late 1980s, at Park Avenue School, which sits atop a landfill. City officials want Bellomo and Groveman, the district’s longtime consulting environmental attorney, removed from jurisdiction over the site. Bellomo‘s original charge was to help design a temporary fix -- an impermeable liner with a venting system -- that would prevent landfill toxins from continuing to seep through the school’s asphalt playground. Groveman‘s part included negotiating an agreement with state officials that would govern a permanent solution. In fact, the permanent fix never happened, despite a consent order the school district signed with the state in 1990. In recent months, safety concerns have re-emerged over the appearance of vapor bubbles just below the surface coating of the playground.

Bellomo insists that his original role at Park Avenue ended with the signing of the consent order and the reopening of the school, and that he had little involvement with the school district thereafter, until late 1998. He and Groveman say they share the community’s outrage over the lack of follow-through. ”No one was proceeding on Park Avenue until we discovered it was sitting there idle,“ said Bellomo. ”I‘m pushing to get to the bottom of the problems at Park Avenue.“

Cudahy consultant Bryan Steele, a former teacher (and onetime Weekly contributor) who previously researched district environmental practices as an aide to state Assembly member Scott Wildman (D-Glendale), puts forth a contrary view. Steele has argued that Bellomo has an inherent self-interest in defending inadequate past work. The same goes for attorney Groveman, he added.

This spring, Groveman ran for district attorney as an anti-Belmont environmental crusader. But in 1990, he was a hired gun representing the district’s interests as then interpreted. A document from that period indicates that Groveman signed off on an attempt to weaken the consent order. One proposed revision, for example, could have permitted the temporary fix to stand as the permanent solution. Other suggested changes would have downplayed health risks at the site and absolved the district for harm caused by toxins seeping into adjacent properties. Most of the proffered revisions were rejected by the state.

Groveman could not be reached for comment this week. During a recent interview, he said he could not recall having a significant role at Park Avenue years ago, although he acknowledged he might have done some work there.

Bellomo has answered questions about his unusual pay arrangements before. In fact, he said he persuaded reporters from the Daily News and the L.A. Times that there was ”no story“ here. Yet his persisting ties to ESC invite scrutiny.

Bellomo was a top executive at ESC when the district brought him and the company in to manage widespread site contamination at the new Jefferson Middle School, in the fall of 1998. Almost immediately, Bellomo became a lead figure, along with Groveman, in a hastily assembled ”safety team.“ His position cast him in the role of overseeing the work of ESC, and in recognition of this obvious conflict, Bellomo said he arranged to sever ties with ESC in December 1998. With the district‘s assent, however, he continued to be paid through ESC until the school system finally organized a contract, dated September 1999, for the Polaris Group, a new entity run by Bellomo. The ESC contract was simply a temporary pass-through mechanism, said Bellomo, although he acknowledged that ESC got a cut. Specifically, the district paid ESC $165 an hour, of which, says Bellomo, he received $150.

A similar arrangement was in place for contracts outside the school district. The law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher paid ESC $180 an hour for Bellomo’s services, of which Bellomo received $150. Bellomo estimates that his most recent Gibson, Dunn billing through ESC was only about three months ago. He also received pay through ESC for work he did for Boeing and in ongoing labors for the city of Santa Monica. He signed his own contract with Santa Monica -- independent of ESC -- about a month ago, he said. He added that he accepts no new work through ESC, a Virginia-based company with a regional office in Burbank.

Meanwhile, at the school district, ESC has thrived, with authorizations for more than $3.6 million in contracts since arriving on the scene with Bellomo. ESC initially got its assignment on an emergency basis -- legally avoiding competitive bidding requirements -- to conduct tests at Jefferson and Belmont, as well as at a now-abandoned high school site in South Gate. Bellomo said he doesn‘t know if this contracted work has ever gone out to bid. It should have, he added. Contacted Tuesday morning, the labyrinthine district bureaucracy was unable to answer by day’s end whether ESC has participated in a competitive bidding process.

Bellomo blames the persisting questions about him on litigation related to Belmont -- and he‘s not entirely off the mark. The school district’s lawsuit against O‘Melveny & Myers accuses the law firm of malpractice in its representation of L.A. Unified on the canceled, half-finished Belmont high school project. Part of O’Melveny‘s strategy is to undermine its critics, and the firm counts Bellomo and Groveman as among the most pivotal. O’Melveny operatives have accused former candidate Groveman of successfully working to kill the Belmont project -- a decision that elevated O‘Melveny’s liability -- for the sake of bald political ambition.

Bellomo helped out by soliciting friends and professional associates for campaign contributions, raising the specter of an implied quid pro quo for obtaining district business. Bellomo said he explicitly avoided calling contractors doing business with L.A. Unified. ”I never intentionally asked anyone doing work for the district,“ he said. However, in one instance, at least, his secretary failed to observe this safeguard. Last summer, she called an active district environmental contractor both just before and just after a key district job interview in which Bellomo participated. Both times, she left voice mails requesting contributions to Groveman‘s campaign, according to sworn testimony by geologist Daniel J. Ramsay.

O’Melveny has not aggressively pursued Bellomo in one arena, the litigation between private parties over a contaminated strip-mall site in Hollywood. That‘s because Bellomo was working this case on behalf of Gibson, Dunn -- the same firm that is representing O’Melveny in the Belmont litigation. Lawyers for the other side, however, alleged that in early November Bellomo repeatedly contacted a top local official of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, urging him to sign a letter that would benefit Gibson‘s legal position. Gibson, Dunn prepared a draft of this letter, and the state official subsequently signed it -- verbatim.

Bellomo denies using his position as an influential former state official to muscle anyone. While granting that Gibson, Dunn drafted the letter, he characterized it as a time-saving mechanism, and hardly unusual. The official, added Bellomo, was not obliged to sign anything with which he disagreed. Late last year, state officials agreed to look into the matter.

Jacques Massachi, the property owner battling Gibson, Dunn, offers another view of Bellomo’s actions: ”This man has no ethical principles as far as I‘m concerned.“

Bellomo reserved his barb for O’Melveny: ”What is happening here is that O‘Melveny is attempting to redefine issues in the public arena. When the Belmont litigation goes to trial, the facts will be well documented and a proper decision will be made. I’m confident of that.“

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