By Hillel Aron
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By Jill Stewart
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|Photo by Debra DiPaolo|
If you never heard of last year’s internal school-district probe of consulting attorney Barry Groveman, you’re in good company. Neither did Ruben Zacarias, who was the superintendent of L.A.’s schools at the time. Nor did six of the seven school-board members. Nor were they told when Groveman, in September 1999, was referred to the state Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) and the county District Attorney’s Office for possible violations of campaign-finance laws. They only learned of the investigation and referral this week, from a Weeklyreporter.
All of which worked out well for Groveman because, in 1999, he was running for the office of district attorney. News of the inquiry into his campaign’s fund-raising — or the referral to regulators and prosecutors — could have cost him his consulting job and devastated his run for office.
Instead, Groveman remained a key district adviser on environmental matters and, less than a month after the referral, would play a pivotal part in the ouster of Superintendent Zacarias. Groveman then based his entire campaign on his purported role as the incorruptible white knight of the Belmont Learning Complex scandal, the crusader who uncovered this and other school-safety crises and righted the school system’s ship of state.
It was ironic positioning for someone who fell under a Belmont-related cloud himself. Investigators working for internal auditor Don Mullinax concluded in the referral that Groveman may have violated state campaign-finance laws because he “knowingly solicited, or caused to be solicited” contractors for campaign contributions while these same contractors were “under consideration” for district employment at the Belmont site and elsewhere. The September 1999 referral is supported by summaries of interviews with an attorney, two contractors and a midlevel district administrator. The case is apparently still open at the state level.
Former Superintendent Zacarias, contacted this week, minces no words regarding how he would have responded. “I would have taken the matter to the school board and personally brought Groveman in before them and said, ‘You can’t do that and continue working for the district.’”
What actually happened is a political mystery. That’s because virtually all other consultants, contractors and administrators tainted by Belmont saw their school-district careers implode. If Mullinax singled them out by name for criticism, they were fired, retired, sued and/or referred for possible prosecution. Groveman — though also referred to prosecutors — was unique in that his star rose after the release of the 15-volume Mullinax report. And he remains with the school system as consulting attorney. Groveman was never personally linked in the highly publicized report with any alleged transgression.
Fortune also smiled on a Groveman associate — environmental consultant Angelo Bellomo — whose secretary had solicited the donations. Earlier this year, Bellomo became the interim head of the district’s Environment Health and Safety branch.
Some of the most troubling questions surrounding the Groveman referral concern its secrecy. Mullinax’s report named names in excruciating detail, so why wasn’t Groveman among them? And though Mullinax had no obligation for public disclosure, why did he keep the school board in the dark? With the exception of school-board president Genethia Hayes, board members reached by the Weeklysaid they had no knowledge of Groveman’s alleged violations.
In an interview, Hayes said she learned of the matter from Groveman himself, in a brief, passing conversation, but never followed up. Groveman did not return calls from the Weekly. In the end, his campaign was not tarred by the referral; he would be endorsed by three of the seven board members, including Hayes. √Ę
Perhaps the most damning interview conducted by auditors was with outside attorney Ward L. Benshoof, senior partner of Weston, Benshoof, Rochefort, Rubalcava, MacCuish. Like other related documents obtained by the Weekly, the interview summary is stamped “CONFIDENTIAL.” For one thing, Benshoof had a tape of one of the multiple solicitations made of his attorneys, recorded June 17.
“Hi, Tom, my name is Tara and I’m Angelo Bellomo’s secretary,” the tape begins. “We are currently organizing an event for Barry Groveman, and, as you know, Barry is running for district attorney in this upcoming election. We’re holding this event in downtown Los Angeles at the L.A. Athletic Club, and it will be on June 28. That’s a Monday, between the hours of 5 to 8 p.m. And Angelo was hoping that this would be an event you would be able to participate in either by attending or if you’d like to donate to Barry’s campaign some other way. The tickets are $250 for guest, $500 for host and $1,000 for sponsor if you do the fund-raiser. If you could please give us a call and let us know if this is something you could do . . . You can speak with either Angelo or myself. Thank you very much, Tom, bye-bye.” The firm also received a flier for a Groveman fund-raiser at the House of Blues in West Hollywood.
Then as now, the Weston firm was representing the school district as outside counsel to negotiate with the private developer of the Belmont Learning Complex, a project that the school board later canceled. Technically, neither Groveman nor Bellomo had direct say over Weston’s hiring and evaluation, but the two consultants were the central players on the specially appointed “School Safety Team.” They helped to oversee all environmental work in the school system and had particular responsibility for the half-finished Belmont complex, the nation’s most expensive high school project. The school sits atop a shallow oil field that emits small amounts of explosive methane and toxic hydrogen sulfide. The safety team’s ostensible goal was, if possible, to manage the project to a safe and successful conclusion. Their input was influential with senior staff, school-board members and even state legislators.