Deny, Defend and Deflect

After years of ignoring and deflecting criticism on the Belmont Learning Complex -- the most expensive high school ever built -- Los Angeles school officials must now confront a new and blistering critique from their own internal auditor.

Don Mullinax, appointed in January to the new post of director of special investigations, asserted on Tuesday that district staff have violated a slew of laws, ignored conflicts of interest among project attorneys and consultants, ducked responsibility, and resisted efforts to find out what happened.

“Every time the district had an opportunity to make the right call, they failed,” said Mullinax, shortly after the report‘s release on Tuesday.

Mullinax added that he had “referred possible criminal violations to various law-enforcement agencies,” but declined to say which agencies.

The $200 million Belmont project -- launched at a time when the district was strapped for funds -- has left the school system with a desperately needed, half-finished school that may never be completed. And even if it is, millions of dollars will have been wasted in the process of reducing safety risks at the site, an old oil field.

Some of the violations were errors of omission, such as failing to conduct proper tests or notify oversight agencies, but the auditor was not content to blame ignorance or inattention. “The staff knew, or had to know, that those laws were on the books, and they failed to comply with those,” said Mullinax. “The professional staff misled the school board.” He added, “It’s very difficult for me. I‘m saying my employer violated the law.”

Bureaucrats also resisted his investigation. “One week ago today,” said Mullinax, “we received a box of documents from a senior official” that had been requested in March, at the start of the investigation. “I was hired to be a watchdog, not a house pet . . . For some reason, they don’t want to cooperate. They don‘t take us seriously.”

While also faulting state oversight the report singles out for specific blame a stunning array of current and former senior officials. They include:

. Dave Koch, the district’s top manager, in charge of all non-academic operations in the $7 billion school system;

. Dominic Shambra, the retired planning director who was chiefly responsible for Belmont;

. David W. Cartwright, Shambra‘s consulting attorney;

. Richard K. Mason, the district’s senior lawyer;

. Robert Niccum, head of the real estate division;

. Dianne Doi and Susie Wong, both former directors of the district‘s Environmental Health and Safety Office; and

. two district superintendents: Sidney Thompson and current schools chief Ruben Zacarias.

THE Mullinax REPORTSTATES that those still working for the district should “be disciplined . . . up to and including termination.”

The report also proposes initiating legal action for “breach of professional care or duty” against O’Melveny & Myers, the prestigious law firm that guided numerous Belmont decisions; McLarand, Vasquez & Partners, the project architect; and three environmental firms that worked on the project. Mullinax also recommends that unless the developer, a partnership anchored by the Kajima Corp., accepts financial responsibility for part of the Belmont fiasco, the district take the developer to court.

One reporter asked Mullinax if he was actually ready to decapitate the school district‘s entire senior management. Only the school board can answer that question, responded Mullinax, a former Defense Department auditor and senior Senate investigator. Board members themselves violated state regulations regarding Belmont, he noted, though he has no proof that they knowingly flouted state law.

Regardless, the newly elected school-board majority -- one that used Belmont as an alarum in the recent elections -- has all the cover it needs for housecleaning, all the way up to the office of Superintendent Zacarias. Though not singling him out as a prime offender, Mullinax asserts that board members should consider Zacarias’ “failure to supervise the Belmont project in a diligent, professional and effective manner as part of his next scheduled performance evaluation.”

Zacarias immediately defended his actions as appropriate and even proactive, but also promised to act on the report‘s recommendations, which include, in effect, an overhaul of how the school system does business. Neither Zacarias nor school-board members had much of substance to say about the report, which was as new to them as it was to a host of reporters who swarmed district offices for a copy Tuesday morning. Other administrators named in the report declined comment through a district spokesman.

In the course of a 187-page report supported by 14 volumes of original documentation, Mullinax lays out a host of regulations that should have governed the Belmont proj-ect and demonstrates step by step, with biting detail, who fell short of the mark and when. Most of the report focuses on the environmental review and the construction process, and finds that, ultimately, construction was not managed by the district at all -- especially after the retirement of planning director Shambra.

“Even as late as last week,” Mullinax told reporters, “we were wondering who was in charge of Belmont . . . They just kept pointing fingers at each other, and saying that they were all just coordinators and working on this together. That was very troubling.”

In the end, the developer was left to serve as its own watchdog on the project and, according to Mullinax, breached its ethical and legal obligations. In particular, the developer withheld information about methane, an explosive gas, at the oil field site, and also allegedly sought to cut costs by requiring a protective methane barrier on only a part of the site. Safety experts have since concluded that this plan could have had disastrous consequences.

The Mullinax report contains few revelations; what’s groundbreaking is that it was generated by government-sanctioned investigators who affirmed allegations, many of them first published in the Weekly, that district officials have dismissed derisively for years.

Especially striking was the damning evaluation of O‘Melveny & Myers and real estate partner David Cartwright, one of Belmont’s prime orchestrators. Cartwright and associate Lisa M. C. Gooden were key players on the district panel that selected the Kajima development team, even though the Kajima proposal was the most expensive submitted. At the time, Mullinax pointed out, Kajima was also a major, multimillion-dollar client of O‘Melveny’s (although O‘Melveny did not represent Kajima in this transaction), while Cartwright as a partner in the firm had a stake in O’Melveny‘s fortunes.

Mullinax asserts that O’Melveny attorneys had a legal obligation to recuse themselves from decision-making roles in choosing a developer, and claims O‘Melveny failed to negotiate a development agreement that properly protected the district’s interest. There was, for example, no escape clause to limit the district‘s development fees if the project were abandoned, and no effort to secure environmental-hazard insurance, a no-brainer on a contaminated site, in the view of Mullinax.

O’Melveny countered in a press release that the report‘s criticism is “unfounded, unfair and badly mistaken.” The developer also denied any wrongdoing.

Cartwright’s district master on Belmont was planning director Shambra, who retired early in 1998. In recent days, Shambra has intimated that he expected a form of exoneration from Mullinax, but instead the report portrayed Shambra as the bull who led the Belmont charge. Still, any number of key officials had a legal obligation to make sure he followed the rules. At a variety of junctures, nearly every one of the district‘s most senior managers should have stepped forward to slow Shambra’s runaway train.

The report notes that two former superintendents -- Bill Anton and Thompson -- allowed Shambra to operate his planning department independent of district checks and balances. And a decision to shut out the district‘s own environmental office from a key land deal was sanctioned at a meeting that included attorney Mason, business director Koch and real estate director Niccum.

Koch and Niccum later raised concerns about the incomplete environmental review, but Superintendent Thompson “apparently supported Mr. Shambra in this matter,” in the words of the report. Much later, when two school-board members voiced their own concerns, neither Koch nor Niccum evinced a peep of protest.

the district is imbued with “the culture of deny, defend and deflect,” said Mullinax. “Deny there’s a problem, defend the status quo, use a public-relations spin to deflect criticism.” For this atmosphere, he also directly blamed the school board.

This week‘s report is not the last word on Belmont from the Mullinax team. A hint of what is to come appears in a brief analysis of the role of the project architect, Mclarand, Vasquez & Partners, and its executive Ernesto Vasquez. Mullinax fairly echoes the findings of a Weekly story from February 1998, which traced Vasquez’s profitable, but questionable, migration from project evaluator to project architect. An obvious conflict of interest, the report concluded. The architecture firm had no comment.

Mullinax pledged a thorough review not only of Vasquez, but of Shambra‘s entire financial operation. “We are still working on that,” Mullinax said. “We don’t have a warm, fuzzy feeling about this.”

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >