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Gang program hits low point in Echo Park

Wednesday, Apr 26 2000
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In a critical audit that has cast a shadow over the citywide gang-prevention program L.A. Bridges, Controller Rick Tuttle reported poor management, lax oversight and wasteful spending. Yet Tuttle‘s final report made no mention of the darkest chapter in the brief history of the program.

That episode took place at Virgil Middle School in Silver Lake, one of 26 schools where Bridges has contracted to provide afternoon counseling and services to keep troubled kids in their early teens out of trouble and out of gangs. At Virgil, for the first two years of the program, the counselor himself turned out to be troubled.

According to court records and interviews, Willie Martinez Jr., the Bridges coordinator at Virgil, used his Echo Park apartment as a party pad to attract teenage boys. Martinez, then 40 years old, provided beer, malt liquor, marijuana and speed, played pornographic videos, and on several occasions, sexually molested his young charges.

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In August of 1998, Martinez was convicted on two counts of oral copulation on a person under 16 years of age, and sentenced to two years in prison. Martinez was released last July, and is now living in Van Nuys.

Martinez’s arrest came as a shock to the administrators at Virgil and at El Centro del Pueblo, the nonprofit agency that administers the L.A. Bridges contract. Virgil principal Gloria Sierra told the Weekly she had considered ending the program, but decided to try a second time. “You have to determine whether something is isolated or a program is so flawed you can‘t work with it. It was no one’s intention to have what happened occur.”

Sierra added that the person who replaced Martinez, a former counselor at Logan Elementary School named Elba Salmeron, has had great success. “She stepped into a difficult position, and the program is flying.”

City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, whose district encompasses Virgil and who is a strong advocate of the Bridges program, agrees that the gang project should not be held to account for the transgressions of a single counselor. “That school had a bad problem, a serious problem, and to use that to indict a whole program, I think, is really unfair.

”The same thing happens with teachers. You want to indict all teachers when a pedophile gets through the system? You can monitor as closely as you want, but there‘s no way to know if there’s someone taking somebody home.“

But was the program monitored closely? Quality of administration at Bridges was one focus of the controller‘s audit, and the results were grim. While the audit did not address the specific sites, its program-wide survey ”found a very troubling pattern of inadequate management,“ and a ”lack of follow-up by managers to known problems.“

It specifically criticized the city Community Development Department (CDD), which contracted with individual agencies, for failure to track what went on at the program sites. Auditors found ”nonexistent or inadequate oversight by the CDD,“ amounting to ”a complete abdication of responsibility by those charged with monitoring the success of the program.“

The audit did not address El Centro del Pueblo specifically. Headquartered in Echo Park, El Centro is a youth-services and gang-diversion project that operates primarily on government grants -- which totaled more than $2 million in 1998, the last year for which figures are available. Aside from the $340,000 from L.A. Bridges, El Centro garnered county Department of Education funds totaling more than $1 million, as well as federal job-training funds.

Over the years, El Centro has developed a reputation as a close, sometimes insular organization. At the time Willie Martinez was dispatched to Virgil Middle School, El Centro’s board of directors included its executive director, Sandra Figueroa-Villa; her husband, Jesse Villa; Marisol Lara, a former administrative assistant to Figueroa-Villa; Conrado Terrazas, a staffer for Council Member Goldberg; and Michael McKinley, the impresario behind the Sunset Junction Street Fair who himself received contract funds through L.A. Bridges.

Asked to comment for this story, Terrazas referred questions to a Goldberg press aide. Figueroa-Villa also declined comment, referring questions to Art Goldberg, the council member‘s brother and the criminal defense attorney who represented Martinez. Goldberg said he did not know Martinez well and knew nothing of his involvement with L.A. Bridges.

The controller’s audit focused primarily on weak accounting records and procedures, but it also addressed management practices. Under the finding ”The Bridges Programs Were Not Managed or Monitored Effectively,“ the audit condemned the ”control environment“ fostered by the CDD. ”Control-environment factors include the integrity, ethical values and competence of the entity‘s people; management’s philosophy and operating style; the way management assigns authority and responsibility, and organizes and develops its people; and the attention and direction provided by the governing board.“

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