|Photo by Debra DiPaolo|
If you never heard of last year’s internal school-district probe of consulting attorney Barry Groveman, you’re in good company. Neither did Ruben Zacarias, who was the superintendent of L.A.’s schools at the time. Nor did six of the seven school-board members. Nor were they told when Groveman, in September 1999, was referred to the state Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) and the county District Attorney’s Office for possible violations of campaign-finance laws. They only learned of the investigation and referral this week, from a Weekly reporter.
All of which worked out well for Groveman because, in 1999, he was running for the office of district attorney. News of the inquiry into his campaign’s fund-raising — or the referral to regulators and prosecutors — could have cost him his consulting job and devastated his run for office.
Instead, Groveman remained a key district adviser on environmental matters and, less than a month after the referral, would play a pivotal part in the ouster of Superintendent Zacarias. Groveman then based his entire campaign on his purported role as the incorruptible white knight of the Belmont Learning Complex scandal, the crusader who uncovered this and other school-safety crises and righted the school system’s ship of state.
It was ironic positioning for someone who fell under a Belmont-related cloud himself. Investigators working for internal auditor Don Mullinax concluded in the referral that Groveman may have violated state campaign-finance laws because he “knowingly solicited, or caused to be solicited” contractors for campaign contributions while these same contractors were “under consideration” for district employment at the Belmont site and elsewhere. The September 1999 referral is supported by summaries of interviews with an attorney, two contractors and a midlevel district administrator. The case is apparently still open at the state level.
Former Superintendent Zacarias, contacted this week, minces no words regarding how he would have responded. “I would have taken the matter to the school board and personally brought Groveman in before them and said, ‘You can’t do that and continue working for the district.’”
What actually happened is a political mystery. That’s because virtually all other consultants, contractors and administrators tainted by Belmont saw their school-district careers implode. If Mullinax singled them out by name for criticism, they were fired, retired, sued and/or referred for possible prosecution. Groveman — though also referred to prosecutors — was unique in that his star rose after the release of the 15-volume Mullinax report. And he remains with the school system as consulting attorney. Groveman was never personally linked in the highly publicized report with any alleged transgression.
Fortune also smiled on a Groveman associate — environmental consultant Angelo Bellomo — whose secretary had solicited the donations. Earlier this year, Bellomo became the interim head of the district’s Environment Health and Safety branch.
Some of the most troubling questions surrounding the Groveman referral concern its secrecy. Mullinax’s report named names in excruciating detail, so why wasn’t Groveman among them? And though Mullinax had no obligation for public disclosure, why did he keep the school board in the dark? With the exception of school-board president Genethia Hayes, board members reached by the Weekly said they had no knowledge of Groveman’s alleged violations.
In an interview, Hayes said she learned of the matter from Groveman himself, in a brief, passing conversation, but never followed up. Groveman did not return calls from the Weekly. In the end, his campaign was not tarred by the referral; he would be endorsed by three of the seven board members, including Hayes. â
Perhaps the most damning interview conducted by auditors was with outside attorney Ward L. Benshoof, senior partner of Weston, Benshoof, Rochefort, Rubalcava, MacCuish. Like other related documents obtained by the Weekly, the interview summary is stamped “CONFIDENTIAL.” For one thing, Benshoof had a tape of one of the multiple solicitations made of his attorneys, recorded June 17.
“Hi, Tom, my name is Tara and I’m Angelo Bellomo’s secretary,” the tape begins. “We are currently organizing an event for Barry Groveman, and, as you know, Barry is running for district attorney in this upcoming election. We’re holding this event in downtown Los Angeles at the L.A. Athletic Club, and it will be on June 28. That’s a Monday, between the hours of 5 to 8 p.m. And Angelo was hoping that this would be an event you would be able to participate in either by attending or if you’d like to donate to Barry’s campaign some other way. The tickets are $250 for guest, $500 for host and $1,000 for sponsor if you do the fund-raiser. If you could please give us a call and let us know if this is something you could do . . . You can speak with either Angelo or myself. Thank you very much, Tom, bye-bye.” The firm also received a flier for a Groveman fund-raiser at the House of Blues in West Hollywood.
Then as now, the Weston firm was representing the school district as outside counsel to negotiate with the private developer of the Belmont Learning Complex, a project that the school board later canceled. Technically, neither Groveman nor Bellomo had direct say over Weston’s hiring and evaluation, but the two consultants were the central players on the specially appointed “School Safety Team.” They helped to oversee all environmental work in the school system and had particular responsibility for the half-finished Belmont complex, the nation’s most expensive high school project. The school sits atop a shallow oil field that emits small amounts of explosive methane and toxic hydrogen sulfide. The safety team’s ostensible goal was, if possible, to manage the project to a safe and successful conclusion. Their input was influential with senior staff, school-board members and even state legislators.
In the words of the investigators, “Mr. Benshoof advised he was very troubled by the call and instructed the firm’s partners that it was improper to be solicited by Barry Groveman for contributions . . . Since its lack of response, Mr. Benshoof has felt increased hostility and animosity by Groveman.”
Even though Groveman had originally recommended the Weston firm, relations between Benshoof and Groveman rapidly deteriorated over a variety of issues. At one point, according to Benshoof, Groveman threatened to quit over the matter of legal work that was being assigned to Weston rather than Groveman’s firm, Proskauer Rose LLP. Benshoof added that when it appeared that the school-board majority was leaning toward Weston, Groveman contacted the office of state Senator Tom Hayden.
Hayden intervened publicly, but not over work assignments or campaign contributions. Hayden accepted Groveman’s reasoning that more was at stake. Behind the scenes, to Hayden and others, Groveman and Bellomo described a struggle for the soul of the school district between the old guard that was responsible for Belmont and forces for reform that made school safety a top priority. In fact, both sides acknowledge that there was conflict; the difference is over interpretation. Groveman insisted that the old guard — which included newcomer Benshoof — was, for example, attempting to water down school-safety legislation. Groveman’s critics asserted that his school-safety intifada had become indistinguishable from his attempt to build political capital in the race for district attorney. They accused Groveman of becoming a self-serving free agent on the district’s dime.
In the press, with Hayden leading the charge, the result of this square-off was a black eye for the district bureaucracy, and a public-relations victory for those espousing Groveman’s interpretation. For his part, Hayden saw to it that the school-safety legislation went through with especially stringent language.
Investigators quote Benshoof saying that thereafter, Groveman’s “star has been raising [sic] again and everyone at the district became afraid of him because of his ties in Sacramento, including the current superintendent.” In his notes, the interviewer wrote that Benshoof said Groveman “has expressly said he would release information to Senator Hayden which would embarrass the district if they didn’t go along with his viewpoint.”
Auditors also met with Walter R. Crone, principal environmental geologist for Ninyo & Moore, an environmental-science firm. In early June of 1999, Crone received two phone messages from Bellomo’s secretary soliciting contributions.
At the time, Crone told investigators, he was being considered for district work by a three-person panel that included Bellomo. Crone said he did not connect the solicitation with the bid-award process and never made a donation. His company, which has worked for the district before, ultimately was hired to serve as a project manager at Belmont.
About the same time, Miller Brooks Environmental Inc., already a district contractor, was being considered for additional work, at Belmont. On June 17, 1999, company associate and senior geologist Daniel J. Ramsay met with Bellomo and Yi Hwa Kim, the acting director of the school district’s safety branch, “to discuss Miller Brooks’ qualifications and availability,” according to interview notes. That very afternoon, Ramsay received a phone message from Bellomo’s secretary soliciting contributions. He received a second voice-mail solicitation a week later; suggested donations for a fund-raising dinner were $250, $500 and $1,000. Ramsay never responded.
Five days later, on June 30, he received a voice mail from Yi Hwa Kim congratulating him on getting the Belmont job. But on July 7, at the school district, Kim pulled Ramsay aside to alert him “that Miller Brooks had been ‘de-selected’ because Groveman wanted the position reopened for bid.” Like Crone, Ramsay said he did not connect the decision with the solicitation. The Miller Brooks firm did not get the job.
Groveman’s fund-raising was an uphill struggle compared to that of District Attorney Gil Garcetti. Garcetti used his formidable campaign skills and incumbent status to raise more than $700,000 in 1999. Meanwhile, challenger Steve Cooley locked up much of the anti-Garcetti contingent, as well as the few available Republicans. Groveman turned to his personal and professional contacts. Early on, he took the risk of undermining his pro-environment image by accepting campaign contributions from former clients in the chrome-plating industry.
He also had professional connections in environmental science, but these firms were problematic donors because the school district, under the leadership of the safety team, was dispensing millions of dollars in contracts to such firms to evaluate current and potential school sites.
Mullinax did not return phone calls from the Weekly, but the apparent goal of his team was merely to lay groundwork for further outside investigation, because obvious leads were not pursued, including reviewing Groveman’s donor list. Ironically, Groveman never raised a nickel from the parties interviewed by investigators. But at least 11 environmental firms contributed a total of more than $15,000 in 1999, according to information on Groveman’s campaign-disclosure statements. Two of these companies readily acknowledged either having or bidding for school-district contracts within the last year or so. A third firm, whose managers could not be reached, appears in the school’s district’s contract log book, which notes that the company was paid $14,999.
The outcome of last year’s referral is uncertain. At the state level, the investigation into Groveman remains an â open file, judging by the best available evidence. The Fair Political Practices Commission, according to policy, won’t confirm the existence of an ongoing investigation. The agency does acknowledge, however, that no closure letter has been issued for any referral involving Groveman. Such letters are always prepared at the conclusion of an investigation, said FPPC spokesperson Melissa Mikesell.
For the most part, state campaign-finance laws are woefully inept. Candidates rarely have to worry about serious prosecutions. It’s not certain that Groveman properly falls under the legal reach of the conflict-of-interest provisions. Even if he does, the maximum penalty for breaking the rules is a fine of $2,000 per violation. Groveman, a high-priced environmental attorney, could pay that off in half a day of billable hours. But in September 1999, the disclosure of the Mullinax referral had the potential to devastate Groveman’s campaign for district attorney.
Word of the investigation leaked out as early as July 1999, when Mullinax’s team was conducting its first interviews. School-board president Genethia Hayes got an unexpected evening telephone call from the woman who’d recently served as her campaign manager. The woman also was a staffer in the District Attorney’s Office. According to Hayes, her friend warned her that “Mr. Groveman will soon be the subject [of] an investigation for fund-raising improprieties related to his impending campaign for district attorney.”
A troubled Hayes quickly confronted Groveman over the matter, Hayes told the Weekly in an interview earlier this year. Hayes said she was impressed not only by Groveman’s denial of wrongdoing, but by his willingness to provide a full list of campaign donors. Hayes then directed her attention — and fury — to Garcetti’s office, shooting off an angry letter that immediately became the focus of newspaper stories.
“We are entering into a very sensitive phase of our deliberations regarding the fate of the Belmont Learning Center,” Hayes wrote Garcetti. “If you have evidence to prove these allegations, I must inform other board members and make arrangements to delve into the disclosures relayed to me. If, on the other hand, I have been misinformed, know that I consider it to be a lack of integrity and a lack of moral and ethical behavior to have circulating from your office falsehoods that could destroy Mr. Groveman’s career and reputation.” She added, “Even if the information were true, it appears to be both improper and inappropriate for you to use the weight and color of authority of your office to communicate to me behind the scenes in such a fashion.”
Garcetti answered with corresponding vehemence: “I am shocked and offended by your letter questioning the ethics of our prosecutors; I certainly never instructed anyone on my staff to have any conversation with you concerning Mr. Groveman or the Belmont matter.” Upon investigation, added Garcetti, “I also have learned that your campaign manager, who works in this office, apparently had some private conversation with you unrelated to her duties in this office . . . While she believed this conversation to be personal, she indicated that your letter mischaracterized this discussion.”
The exchange probably tarnished Garcetti, since no one denies that Hayes was contacted.
In retrospect, Groveman’s aplomb in managing the situation is extraordinary, because the tip about the probe was on the mark. Groveman was indeed being investigated by the school district’s own auditor. The date on which Hayes wrote her angry missive — July 22 — is the very day that an investigator interviewed attorney Ward Benshoof. Garcetti declined to comment for this story, but in 1999, because of the obvious conflict of interest, he referred the case elsewhere. According to the City Attorney’s Office, their prosecutors got the case from Garcetti. They, in turn, forwarded the file to the Fair Political Practices Commission, which already had its own referral from Mullinax. Garcetti and Hayes have since made peace. She even endorsed Garcetti, once Groveman’s third-place finish in the March primary failed to qualify him for the November runoff.
In July 1999, with investigators in the process of fact-finding, Mullinax had no obligation to alert board members. It’s harder to explain why Mullinax never informed them, given that Mullinax reports directly to the school board.
His recommendations in the 187-page Belmont Report of Findings contain a veiled reference to the Groveman matter. In the future, the report says, the district should “prohibit the solicitation of campaign contributions by any LAUSD employee or consultant (or any agent on their behalf) from any LAUSD employee or consultant over whom the soliciting LAUSD employee or consultant has supervision or control.”
To former Superintendent Zacarias, this anonymous reference to Groveman represents an apparent double standard. “I am very surprised that at the point that Mullinax mentions all these other names he didn’t mention his misgivings about Groveman. If you are going to name names, name them all.”
At the time, though, Mullinax, a recent hire, was poised to damn virtually the entire top leadership of the school system over Belmont. Among his few and crucial allies was state Senator Hayden, who led the charge to obtain subpoena powers for Mullinax. But Hayden also was working closely with Groveman. And for all that Mullinax knew, Groveman might be the next district attorney. Just last month, Senator Hayden accused the district of trying to undermine Mullinax’s authority to conduct independent investigations — ironically, exactly the sort of investigation that Mullinax initiated into Groveman. District officials have denied any desire to weaken or remove Mullinax, but Mullinax’s operation probably faces an audit of its own later this year.
Most school-board members are perplexed about why no one told them of the referral: not Mullinax, not Groveman, and not school-board president Genethia Hayes, who testified in Belmont-related litigation that Groveman had clued her in. â
“Barry told me in a passing conversation,” she testified last week. “It was a brief conversation. As nearly as I can recall, Barry just said, ‘Don sent some stuff to the D.A.’s Office.’ I think it was just that simple.”
In an interview this week, Hayes remembered it differently, initially insisting that neither Groveman nor anyone else ever notified her — the only clue she ever got was the July tip from the D.A.’s Office. When reminded of her deposition statement, she decided that her testimony was, in fact, correct. But she could not recall when Groveman told her: “This stuff happened a year ago. I have not thought about it since then.”
Did she ever perceive any need to follow up or tell fellow board members? “Not me,” said Hayes. “Don Mullinax is the inspector general for the district. If Don doesn’t bring it to the board, I would assume there is nothing to it. What we are talking about is gossip and innuendo. I don’t know whether Mullinax is investigating or whether he has sent anything over.
“All of this stuff, as far as I’m concerned is a tempest in a teapot. All of this becomes highly speculative and I don’t think it serves any purpose.”
Fellow board member Valerie Fields was startled to learn of the referral. “Because I endorsed Barry, this piece of paper would have opened my eyes wide,” said Fields. “I get 18 tons of paper a week, but this I would have remembered.”
“Whether the solicitations were inappropriate is something the FPPC will have to rule on,” said board member Julie Korenstein. “But disclosure of this would have been the appropriate thing. Disclosure is always the best policy.”
“What else is the president of the school board not telling us?” commented board member David Tokofsky.
Unlike others implicated in Belmont-related investigations, Groveman got to keep his job. And less than one month after the referral, Groveman was in position to serve as catalyst for the removal of then-Superintendent Ruben Zacarias. Those details have been previously reported. What’s worth recalling here is that the coup had a striking element of shoot-from-the-hip risk taking on the part of Groveman — or so it has always seemed.
The coup began when Groveman and recently appointed facilities czar Howard Miller walked into a behind-closed-doors morning meeting of the school board to unveil a startling proposal. In the presence of a flabbergasted Zacarias, they suggested that the school board remove the superintendent from day-to-day control, giving that authority to Miller instead. The necessity of the move became clear to them, they asserted, as more revelations emerged regarding Belmont and other contaminated school sites, such as one in South Gate. The district, they implied, was lurching out of control at the very time when skilled and decisive leadership was most needed. The school board went along by a 4-3 vote, triggering public protests among Zacarias supporters and a leadership struggle that finally ended with the costly buyout of Zacarias’ contract.
School-board members deny that anything had been worked out in advance of that meeting. If they are telling the truth, the putsch appears all the more audacious, because its outcome was uncertain, and everyone knows what happens to the leaders of failed coups.
For his part, Miller’s gamble was offset by the looming opportunity to take charge of the entire school district. And at the time, he had widespread support on the school board and among community leaders.
Yet why would Groveman assume that level of risk? Groveman has declined to discuss details of the coup, but has maintained, in general, that he had the public’s interest at heart and that he was determined to push for historic and lasting reforms. But in this event, it’s a challenge to separate the public interest from what also would benefit Groveman personally and politically.
Politically, Groveman needed to keep the Mullinax investigation under wraps, while also holding on to his position at the school district. His high-profile role provided a tremendous public platform to help offset Garcetti’s campaign war chest. On the ballot, he listed his job as “Chief Investigative Attorney” for the school district — a title that did not formally exist at L.A. Unified. Groveman based his entire TV-intensive advertising on fashioning an image as the anti-Belmont avenging angel. He purchased $400,000 in television time ($100,000 was his own money) on channels 2, 4, 5, 7, 11 and 13, running as many as 35 spots a day, according to a campaign aide.
Had the referral become known, Groveman’s opponents in the district could have used that knowledge to remove him from district employment entirely. Chief Administrative Officer Dave Koch, for one, had become completely disenchanted with Groveman by the fall of 1999. But he was effectively removed as a threat with the release of the Mullinax report. The report laid blame on Koch because of his senior position in the chain of command, even though he had no direct authority over the Belmont project itself. He accepted a voluntary retirement package.
Once Groveman moved to unseat Zacarias, it’s unlikely that the Zacarias supporters on the school board would have remained silent about the Groveman referral — had they known of it.
Sure, the coup was a risk for Groveman, but it silenced potential opponents and allies alike, while solidifying his position with a school-board majority that owed him a debt for helping to engineer an overhaul of senior district administrators.
Because she applauds the management changes that resulted, school-board member Caprice Young told the Weekly, “I don’t really want to second-guess what happened. I think it’s Mullinax’s job to decide when things are critical enough to tell us. If he felt that information should be impacting the decisions we would be making, he would have brought it forward. And my experience with Mr. Groveman is that he’s been a dependable adviser on environmental issues. He’s often raised safety issues with us that no one else did. If he had not raised them, the safety of children would have been jeopardized. It’s important that we had him on board.”