Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter

A year of retirement looked good on former school-district Planning Director Dominic Shambra. He’d lost some weight; the tan suit was less rumpled than usual.

But Shambra wasn’t smiling as he approached the familiar podium in the school-board meeting chamber — this time he was appearing under subpoena, asked to defend his role at a hearing on how the half-finished $200 million Belmont Learning Complex became mired in toxic-contamination problems. Shambra was the administrator most responsible for the project.

“Let’s have the investigation,” Shambra firmly told a panel of state lawmakers. “But not only of the [project] proponents. Let’s look at the opponents and the motives behind all of that.”

Shambra has been grumbling darkly about a conspiracy ever since Belmont came under fire for rising costs, conflicts of interest and, more recently, the environmental quan-dary. In his testimony, Shambra said he would “save” the specifics of his allegations against Belmont opponents for a later investigation.

“Excuse me,” demanded state Senator Tom Hayden. “How can you offer what amounts to an attack on character and motive, and then drolly pull back and say, ‘I’m not going to do that now’? Either withdraw the whole statement or explain . . . Get into it right now, Mr. Shambra.”

Shambra, a self-proclaimed red-blooded Sicilian, needed no more urging. The Belmont project, he asserted, had fallen victim to a “political conspiracy” involving unions, politicians and the media. He added: “I believe that when . . . a grand-jury investigation is done that evidence will be very clear . . . “

“Are you saying that any of these conspirators broke the law?” asked Hayden.

“It’s very possible . . . ” intoned Shambra.

Hayden continued: “So you believe the entire Belmont scandal . . . “

” . . . is contrived,” finished Shambra.

Shambra’s contention was a hard sell. After all, the current Belmont crisis was triggered when L.A. Unified’s own “school safety team” concluded that the Belmont site — an abandoned oil field — had never been adequately tested. The safety team also determined that dealing with pockets of methane gas and spot concentrations of carcinogens and other contaminants in midconstruction will likely increase costs by $2 million to $10 million.

Shambra had an answer for that, too, noting that safety-team consultants stood to profit from extra testing. Such claims have been challenged by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, which concluded that additional safety measures are necessary.

This was becoming one heck of a widespread conspiracy, commented union researcher David Koff. “Unfortunately for Mr. Shambra, his two-bit conspiracy theory doesn’t quite cover his $200 million failure.”

For a year, from the sidelines, Shambra has hurled bricks and dodged them regarding Belmont, the state’s most expensive high school project. Last week offered him a rare center-stage forum. The real problem, testified Shambra, was that “There has been direct involvement on the part of Local 11 [of] the hotel and restaurant workers union to block this project from day one because of the developer that was selected. Period.”

At that very moment, Hayden and fellow L.A.-area lawmakers Richard G. Polanco and Scott Wildman were poring over documents assembled with assistance from researcher Koff, who works for Local 11. Koff has dug Belmont dirt as part of a unionization campaign against the Kajima Corp., the project’s lead developer. But so what? countered L.A. teachers-union head Day Higuchi, who watched from the audience. The facts were there; project critics brought them to light. “We had a conspiracy of free speech,” Higuchi said.

Shambra was not through. Besides slander, he said, “There [have] been plants in newspapers. There have been unauthorized investigations . . . “

Shambra was referring to the Wildman-led probe that had prefigured the day’s hearing.

“Are you saying that this meeting is unauthorized?” asked Hayden. ” . . . I mean, we’re the Legislature.”

The point seemed lost on Shambra, but not on L.A. schools Superintendent Ruben Zacarias. Determined to make peace with critics, Zacarias announced at a news conference just prior to the hearing the district’s willingness to withdraw from the school-construction business as long as needed schools still get built. He also signaled the school district’s intention to rebid the last portion of the Belmont project, some $5 million to $14 million in proposed community facilities, including a swimming pool. The move reads like a symbolic recognition of shortcomings in the original bidding process.

Shambra admitted nothing of the kind, though for the most part he contained his animosity toward critics. By hearing’s end, however, he had to let off steam. “Photograph this!” he said half-jokingly to a Weekly photographer as he flipped a quick bird in her direction. Then he called out to a reporter as he strode out the door, “Go ahead. Print some more lies.”

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