By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
On March 1, 2011, John Sandbrook had breakfast with an old college friend who needed a favor. Sandbrook had just retired after 36 years as a UC administrator. His friend — L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky — needed an experienced hand to run the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which was embroiled in a corruption scandal.
Sandbrook, who had fond boyhood memories of the Coliseum's heyday, hoped he could be of some help in restoring the deteriorating landmark. So he agreed. He had no idea that his own integrity would come under attack by Coliseum Commissioner Bernard Parks — and his actions under investigation.
At the time, Sandbrook's predecessor, Pat Lynch, had just resigned as Coliseum general manager. An investigative report would show that Lynch had been taking kickbacks for several years from Tony Estrada, the facility's eccentric janitorial contractor. The report also detailed how Todd DeStefano, Lynch's right-hand man, had taken payments from electronic dance music promoters. DeStefano also had resigned (see "Decline and Fall," Aug. 10).
In effect, Sandbrook had walked into an active crime scene. It was not at all clear whether other culprits were wandering the halls and attending the staff meetings.
Estrada had been Lynch's spy on the staff, and offered to play the same role for Sandbrook. Instead, Sandbrook got rid of him — and Estrada now is an international fugitive after being indicted on charges of embezzlement and conspiracy.
But Sandbrook needed to rely on someone. He turned to Ronald Lederkramer, who had been Lynch's chief financial officer. "He knew how the place was run, and I didn't," Sandbrook says.
Lederkramer was a problematic figure. He had, after all, been the CFO at a time when the Coliseum's top two executives were engaged in widespread corruption. An internal investigation later would fault Lederkramer for "negligence," for approving invoices without verifying their legitimacy. Lederkramer also would come under fire for accepting a car allowance and other perks.
But Sandbrook decided he needed someone who knew where the bodies were buried and was willing to help dig them up. After all, he had bigger problems. Without EDM concerts to pay the bills, the Coliseum was running a $2 million deficit.
On his second day at work, Sandbrook had lunch with Todd Dickey, a senior vice president at USC. Dickey told him he was obliged to come up with a plan to fund $70 million in stadium improvements by June 30.
Most of the stadium seats were nearly 50 years old and in dire need of replacement. The plumbing leaked and the locker rooms were outmoded. In 2008, when the Coliseum Commission agreed to USC's demands for upgrades, it hoped to pay for them by selling naming rights to the stadium. But that fell through. The commission, a joint body of the city, county and state, had no access to taxpayer funds for a renovation. Sandbrook had no money.
That left USC with two options, the same options that any slum tenant would have: It could move out, and play football elsewhere, or it could do the improvements itself, and take the cost out of its rent.
However, the needed repairs would cost more than the rent. So if it wanted to, USC could push the Coliseum Commission into bankruptcy.
In May, Sandbrook informed the Coliseum Commission that its only hope was to turn over day-to-day operations of the facility to USC. The university would tap its alumni donors to pay for the upgrades.
The Coliseum commissioners were not happy about this proposal, but soon all of them came to see its inescapable logic. All, that is, except one: Councilman Bernard Parks. Parks set about to blow up the deal, and to do it he would have to take on John Sandbrook.
Parks has had a difficult relationship with USC, largely thanks to his zealous pursuit of an NFL team, which would have subordinated the Trojans' interests. He also has criticized USC's development in the surrounding neighborhood.
Parks' stated objection to the Coliseum lease is that it will turn a public treasure over to a private entity. He says he worries that USC will not hold enough "community events," though the university has pledged to host more of them.
In practice, though, it appears the real problem is that if the Coliseum is run by USC instead of the commission, Parks will no longer have the clout to decide which community groups get access.
"If we bring it forward, and USC doesn't care for our office, they may say, 'No, you can't,' " says Bernard Parks Jr., the councilman's son and chief of staff. "Whatever the politics of the day are, you'd fall prey to that."
A case in point is the Regalettes, a charitable group that holds an annual fundraiser at the Rose Garden in Exposition Park. Parks' wife, Bobbie Parks, is vice president of the organization. For several years, Pat Lynch had lent out the Coliseum's liquor license to the Regalettes so the group could serve alcohol at its "White Linen Affair."
When Sandbrook learned about the arrangement, he commissioned a legal analysis. It concluded that lending out the liquor license for off-site use was illegal. In August 2011, Sandbrook told Parks Jr. that he would not allow the Regalettes to use the license that year.