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Troubled Help

In a critical audit that has cast a shadow over the citywide gang-prevention program L.A. Bridges, Controller Rick Tuttle reported poor management, lax oversight and wasteful spending. Yet Tuttle‘s final report made no mention of the darkest chapter in the brief history of the program.

That episode took place at Virgil Middle School in Silver Lake, one of 26 schools where Bridges has contracted to provide afternoon counseling and services to keep troubled kids in their early teens out of trouble and out of gangs. At Virgil, for the first two years of the program, the counselor himself turned out to be troubled.

According to court records and interviews, Willie Martinez Jr., the Bridges coordinator at Virgil, used his Echo Park apartment as a party pad to attract teenage boys. Martinez, then 40 years old, provided beer, malt liquor, marijuana and speed, played pornographic videos, and on several occasions, sexually molested his young charges.

In August of 1998, Martinez was convicted on two counts of oral copulation on a person under 16 years of age, and sentenced to two years in prison. Martinez was released last July, and is now living in Van Nuys.

Martinez’s arrest came as a shock to the administrators at Virgil and at El Centro del Pueblo, the nonprofit agency that administers the L.A. Bridges contract. Virgil principal Gloria Sierra told the Weekly she had considered ending the program, but decided to try a second time. “You have to determine whether something is isolated or a program is so flawed you can‘t work with it. It was no one’s intention to have what happened occur.”

Sierra added that the person who replaced Martinez, a former counselor at Logan Elementary School named Elba Salmeron, has had great success. “She stepped into a difficult position, and the program is flying.”

City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, whose district encompasses Virgil and who is a strong advocate of the Bridges program, agrees that the gang project should not be held to account for the transgressions of a single counselor. “That school had a bad problem, a serious problem, and to use that to indict a whole program, I think, is really unfair.

”The same thing happens with teachers. You want to indict all teachers when a pedophile gets through the system? You can monitor as closely as you want, but there‘s no way to know if there’s someone taking somebody home.“

But was the program monitored closely? Quality of administration at Bridges was one focus of the controller‘s audit, and the results were grim. While the audit did not address the specific sites, its program-wide survey ”found a very troubling pattern of inadequate management,“ and a ”lack of follow-up by managers to known problems.“

It specifically criticized the city Community Development Department (CDD), which contracted with individual agencies, for failure to track what went on at the program sites. Auditors found ”nonexistent or inadequate oversight by the CDD,“ amounting to ”a complete abdication of responsibility by those charged with monitoring the success of the program.“

The audit did not address El Centro del Pueblo specifically. Headquartered in Echo Park, El Centro is a youth-services and gang-diversion project that operates primarily on government grants -- which totaled more than $2 million in 1998, the last year for which figures are available. Aside from the $340,000 from L.A. Bridges, El Centro garnered county Department of Education funds totaling more than $1 million, as well as federal job-training funds.

Over the years, El Centro has developed a reputation as a close, sometimes insular organization. At the time Willie Martinez was dispatched to Virgil Middle School, El Centro’s board of directors included its executive director, Sandra Figueroa-Villa; her husband, Jesse Villa; Marisol Lara, a former administrative assistant to Figueroa-Villa; Conrado Terrazas, a staffer for Council Member Goldberg; and Michael McKinley, the impresario behind the Sunset Junction Street Fair who himself received contract funds through L.A. Bridges.

Asked to comment for this story, Terrazas referred questions to a Goldberg press aide. Figueroa-Villa also declined comment, referring questions to Art Goldberg, the council member‘s brother and the criminal defense attorney who represented Martinez. Goldberg said he did not know Martinez well and knew nothing of his involvement with L.A. Bridges.

The controller’s audit focused primarily on weak accounting records and procedures, but it also addressed management practices. Under the finding ”The Bridges Programs Were Not Managed or Monitored Effectively,“ the audit condemned the ”control environment“ fostered by the CDD. ”Control-environment factors include the integrity, ethical values and competence of the entity‘s people; management’s philosophy and operating style; the way management assigns authority and responsibility, and organizes and develops its people; and the attention and direction provided by the governing board.“

Of course, city officials were well aware that nobody was tracking Bridges -- the $11 million annual budget included a $300,000 contract to monitor the program, but it was never awarded due to political infighting on the City Council.

The question remains: Did lax controls contribute to what transpired at Virgil Middle School?

Willie Martinez was selected to run the program at Virgil in July of 1997. Details of the selection process are not available, but according to Lillian Sedlak, chief performance auditor at the Controller‘s Office, Martinez ”apparently substituted someone else’s fingerprints“ during the background check conducted on all prospective employees.

Martinez may also have maintained ties to a local street gang, though that again would not disqualify him for the Bridges job -- ex-gang members often take positions in gang-diversion projects. At Martinez‘s trial in 1998, prosecutor Stephen Meister asserted that ”The defendant is known to associate with Temple Street“ -- a Rampart area street gang -- and that ”he interacts frequently with Temple Street members, throws signs.“

Whatever his background, Martinez made a strong impression on the Virgil campus. ”He was a very flamboyant coordinator,“ recalled school principal Gloria Sierra. ”To me he was always impeccable.“ Martinez tended to dress formally, in a dark suit and tie and a white shirt, and ”appeared to know what to say to whatever audience he was speaking to.“

Martinez coordinated 10 separate programs at Virgil, ranging from mental-health counseling to after-school sports. By 1998, when the program had been up and running for close to a year, Sierra said Martinez began ”overstepping his bounds“ of authority as a coordinator. ”In a meeting he would make a comment if things weren’t going fast enough -- ‘I’ll take this to the community.‘“ Sierra said she would have to remind him that ”We are a team here. We can’t ramrod something. If you want to pull a program out of a hat, you have to ask someone.“

In his capacity as a Bridges coordinator, Martinez worked directly with troubled students. He led at least two field trips, one to Catalina Island and one to Washington, D.C. But it was at his home that Martinez engaged in the conduct that finally brought him to the attention of the LAPD.

As early as October of 1997, according to testimony at a preliminary hearing in Superior Court, Martinez occasionally took the children he counseled over to his apartment. Sometimes they would visit after school; in one case, in 1998, a boy‘s parents threatened to have the boy deported to his native Guatemala if he didn’t stay out of trouble. That boy lived with Martinez for more than a week.

At the apartment, Martinez would play pornographic videos and provide beer and speed; the boys themselves sometimes brought marijuana. In one case Martinez returned a boy to campus or to home by late afternoon; in another the party ran till late at night, with the boys nodding off from drink and smoke.

On two occasions to which the boys testified, Martinez made sexual advances; the boy who stayed for a week was sodomized more than once by Martinez, according to testimony.

Martinez‘s conduct came to light when one of the boys was questioned by an LAPD detective in connection with a gang-related homicide. The slain gang member was a friend of one of the boys Martinez had relations with, and also apparently a close associate of Martinez.

Martinez pleaded guilty after a preliminary hearing at which four Bridges youths -- two of whom were molested -- testified to attending parties at his home. An internal memorandum described the two-year sentence as ”reasonable and just“ considering that Martinez had no criminal record, but also given that, ”in taking advantage of these minors in his charge, he betrayed a very important trust.“

Administrators at El Centro notified officials at the CDD promptly after Martinez was arrested, according to the CDD director at the time, Gloria Stevenson-Clark. The agency was not put on probation or otherwise sanctioned because of the incident, Stevenson-Clark said.

”We walked in with an open mind to figure out what had occurred,“ Stevenson-Clark said.

”It appeared to be a single incident and not condoned by the program. El Centro stepped up to the plate to review the situation as opposed to being defensive and not accepting the seriousness of what had occurred,“ added general manager Parker C. Anderson.

Likewise, Lillian Sedlak at the Controller’s Office said she was satisfied with the CDD‘s response to the Virgil school incident. ”The CDD handled it appropriately,“ Sedlak said. ”They maybe should have put more effort into notifying the schools that this had happened, but we felt they handled it. They didn’t ignore it.“

Now, however, the staff at El Centro would rather ignore it than discuss it. After Figueroa-Villa deflected an interview request, a reporter on Monday queried Robert Aguayo, the Bridges director at El Centro, who appeared Monday at a City Council hearing on what course the city gang project should take. Asked for details on how Martinez was hired and whether procedures changed after his arrest, Aguayo gave a curt response. ”For us that‘s a dead issue,“ he said. ”We’re not discussing it.“

At Virgil Middle School, Elba Salmeron was drafted to pick up the pieces Martinez had left behind. ”When I got here nobody wanted to talk about him,“ Salmeron recalled. ”I tried to clean up and deal with some of the issues. There were a lot of upset people. A lot of cleaning up to do.“

By all accounts, Salmeron has succeeded in erasing the bitter memories of the school‘s first experience with Bridges. She’s enrolled more than 100 children and launched parenting classes that many other Bridges programs lacked.

The parents whose children were molested by Martinez pulled their kids from the school, however, and could not be reached for this story.

There was no reference to the Martinez case in the ”Year II Highlights“ reported by Virgil Middle School. Instead, the ”Highlights“ pointed to four at-risk youth ”who now play football at Belmont High School“; two students who earned ballet scholarships; and one student ”now at Belmont High who runs track and has made it to the city championships, and as of his last report card was maintaining a B-minus average.“


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