By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Still, the project’s estimated cost has risen sharply since an April 2000 analysis that projected a price for the land of about $17 million. Under the contract approved in May, the actual land purchase will run about $24 million. The construction numbers have risen sharply, too. In September 2001, the estimated building cost was about $72 million. The current cost, including district expenses, is about $89.6 million.
The upside of the Santee contract includes a potentially shorter construction period and a more quickly completed application for state bond money. The latter feature has already paid off, resulting in a state appropriation of $36 million for the project. To pull it off, the school system took the risk of paying W.P. Carey for environmental and design work. If the deal had later fallen through, considerable funds could have been wasted. ”We had to work this deal with a great amount of up-front risk,“ said L.A. Unified‘s head of facilities James McConnell, ”because we didn’t have the land in our possession yet.“ Added McConnell: ”I‘m proud of this deal.“
While McConnell focused on qualifying for state funding, Riordan & McKinzie attorney Thomas Harnsberger took it on himself to shore up the home front. Harnsberger met individually with most board members: ”We were asking, if the project could be done, would they be interested?“ He said he wanted to find out, on behalf of his client, if the deal was worth pursuing at all. ”There was no particular sales pitch.“
But that’s not exactly how Tokofsky remembers the meeting. He said it included Harnsberger, W.P. Carey representative Brent Carrier and James Acevedo, a well-connected Latino political consultant whom Carrier said he hired to introduce him to public officials. Acevedo‘s presence was especially interesting given that he’s spent much of his career getting Latinos elected to political office and that Tokofsky remains a prime target of ethnic nationalists who automatically oppose him as a non-Latino in a Latino-majority district. Acevedo also serves on the city‘s Harbor Commission for Mayor Jim Hahn and earlier had been a commissioner when Riordan was mayor. a Tokofsky said the discussion ranged well beyond the proposed Santee project. The trio asked him, he said, if he would support a land swap -- the Santee site for property that L.A. Unified owns in the garment district.
Administrators in the facilities division said they opposed the trade as legally problematic and economically foolish. For one thing, the garment-district property is worth more money than the Santee site, perhaps twice as much.
In an interview, Harnsberger said he could no longer clearly recall the discussion about swapping properties: ”It didn’t go anywhere. I can‘t remember why.“ Carrier, the developer’s representative, was more forthcoming, noting that he had a client he could have located at the district property if the swap had worked out. Carrier is currently setting up a local office for his multibillion-dollar parent company in Los Angeles, with a primary goal of pursuing other school-construction projects. Riordan & McKinzie has represented the W.P. Carey company for some 15 years and would likely get the legal work.
District officials already have had discussions about future projects involving Harnsberger and W.P. Carey. Said McConnell: ”They have lobbied board members and City Council members about doing additional work with the school district. We‘ve asked them to back off lobbying. We’ve made it absolutely clear to them that we want them to finish this high school.“
It‘s striking that it was McConnell, a recent import to the L.A. scene, who had the chutzpah to deliver this admonition, and not, for example, Richard Riordan, who could have been concerned about conflicts of interest. It’s also notable that a law firm representing the seller of a single school site could command an individual audience with board members. (It is certainly not lost on the board that Riordan withdrew his backing of board member Valerie Fields after Fields indicated that she would support a teachers‘ raise that Riordan concluded was 1 percent too high. Fields ended up losing her seat.)
Some school-board members and district sources presume a direct connection between the actions of Riordan and his law firm; others do not, including board president Caprice Young who has nothing but praise for Riordan’s efforts to help schools. In her case, said Young, she sought out Harnsberger: ”I meet with just about everyone I can if they have good insights on how to build schools more effectively.“
In an interview with the Weekly, Harnsberger insisted that Riordan is retired and that he severed all connections to the law firm that bears his name when he became L.A.‘s mayor in 1993. Private citizen Riordan, however, ”can come down and use space at the law firm if he wants to,“ as far as Harnsberger knows. He added that he has virtually no contact with Riordan.
Harnsberger appears to be underselling Riordan’s connection with a law firm whose Internet handle is riordan.com. Riordan has a phone line, an office and a secretary at Riordan & McKinzie, and his secretary said his proper title is ”of counsel.“ He‘s also rejoined his old venture-capital firm, which shares office space with Riordan & McKinzie.