By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
Co-authors of Their Own Demise
Belmont project manager Dom Shambra was Koff’s worthy foil — a combative, profane former elementary-school principal with a yen for cutting real estate deals and playing angles. He stood out starkly in a bureaucracy where middle managers achieve eternal job security by learning to disappear into their shadows.
Well-acquainted with Koff’s hound-dogging, Shambra and his team began to shift costs, so that the actual project budget would seem close to the original projections. “Off-budget” items included legal and consulting fees, the cost of the shopping center, the developer’s multimillion-dollar professional fees — and the price of environmental work.
“The environmental documentation that had been before was not the best,” said Art Gastelum, a member of the Kajima development team in a transcribed interview with researchers working for Assemblyman Scott Wildman. “And we were afraid that there were some unknowns there . . . The school district was trying to, you know, cap their costs in terms of Kajima because of all the criticism . . . They were afraid that even though it was not going to be anybody’s fault, right, if the costs went up on an item like environmental work . . . nobody wanted to take that risk.”
A dollar amount for environmental work was omitted from the project budget, with the quiet understanding that the district would pick up the tab later as needed.
No evidence shows that Shambra and Cartwright thought they were compromising safety — they planned to address oil-field-related problems during construction. But this subterfuge, once exposed, suggested that Shambra’s team was giving short shrift to environmental matters, or even worse, hiding dangerous conditions. Their plan to “mitigate as you go” during construction underscored critics’ assertions that there wasn’t enough advance environmental review.
In the view of Koff, “The most impactful thing in derailing the project was Kajima’s greed, and the quality of Shambra’s team and Kajima’s team, which essentially became one team.”
But none of this would likely have mattered if Koff had not expanded his circle of anti-Belmont allies.
The Ragtag Assassins
A lot of these guys weren’t even holding down full-time jobs. The very idea was laughable, that they could bring down Belmont and, in the process, out-duel both L.A. Unified, a $9 billion bureaucracy, and its peerless law firm, O’Melveny & Myers, home to former Secretary of State Warren Christopher. But you get what you can afford.
Assemblyman Scott Wildman wanted to go after Belmont, and he needed some cheap help, so he began hiring.
The time was mid-1997, and the Belmont project seemed inalterably under way — but not to David Koff and not to Wildman, a politician in search of an issue. Wildman chaired the little-known Joint Legislative Audit Committee and was determined to turn this political backwater into a high-profile, combative entity. With Koff’s backstage support, Wildman made Belmont his centerpiece investigation.
To assist his inquiry, Wildman, in September 1997, hired Weeklyfreelancer Jim Crogan, a cantankerous old-schooler who penned theater reviews and considered it his duty to expose police misconduct. Crogan, in turn, assembled a staff of researchers — mostly struggling freelance journalists. Together, they battled the school district over its closeted records, eventually pushing boxes of documents into the public domain, which provided grist to any number of damaging articles, including the Weeklycover story I wrote in February 1998.
When Wildman’s investigation ran low on funds, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor successfully lobbied legislative leaders, including current mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa, for more money, according to Crogan. After Crogan left Wildman’s employ, underlings Bryan Steele and Maria Armoudian took over and kept up the attack.
The background of Steele, a former teacher, was especially noteworthy. As a journalism teacher (without tenure) at Bell High, Steele had butted heads with the principal over First Amendment issues and other matters — and lost his job. Rather than accept an assignment at another school, he tried his hand at freelance journalism (getting several articles into the Weekly), through which he met Crogan, who later hired him onto Wildman’s staff.
Steele was eager to prove just how awful and unjust the school district was. Building on research begun by Crogan’s original team, Steele soon put together a report that listed L.A. Unified schools and school sites with toxic-contamination issues. Time after time, he found, the school district mishandled or concealed environmental problems.
Later, Steele and fellow researcher Armoudian would provide Wildman with damaging information about Belmont as well, which influenced Wildman’s implacable opposition to the project.
Anti-Belmont pressure ratcheted up further when state Senator Tom Hayden threw in with critics. No longer was Belmont skullduggery only the obsession of a union researcher and the L.A. Weekly, a paper that Belmont supporters dismissed as “pro-union.” Now Koff had Wildman’s legislative committee issuing damning reports and the imprimatur of Hayden, the pride of progressive politics. But like a starlet’s career, the Bury Belmonters weren’t going to get very far without some publicity.
The Full-Court Press
After the 1997 bond issue passed — and after the school board announced plans to use school bonds for Belmont — Koff fell in with an odd bedfellow: the conservative, anti-union-leaning Daily News. The Daily News characterized the Belmont vote, right after the bond election, as a bait and switch. The headline was “BETRAYAL,” and it ran above the fold. The paper’s outrage grew, in part, out of the district’s bond campaign in the Valley, which emphasized that bond money would be used to repair existing schools. Still, the ballot proposal itself plainly stated that bond proceeds also would build new schools, something the Daily Newschose to overlook.