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.
A month later, Councilman Parks publicly called on Sandbrook to resign.
Parks had both personal and policy differences with Sandbrook — the liquor license, the USC lease — but those were not his stated reasons for wanting Sandbrook out. Instead, he claimed that Sandbrook had failed to end the corruption of Lynch's regime.
In particular, Parks asked why Sandbrook hadn't fired Lederkramer. “How do you fall in love with the CFO in the middle of a financial corruption investigation?” Parks would ask. (Parks Jr. denies that the Regalettes dispute contributed to the call for Sandbrook's resignation. Lederkramer would soon take a medical leave, and then retire.)
Sandbrook's integrity was under attack. But the rest of the commission continued to support him, and the USC lease stayed on track.
Stronger measures apparently were required. In early April, the L.A. Times obtained a confidential draft of the lease — likely from Parks' office — and highlighted a provision whereby commissioners would continue to receive free tickets to Coliseum events. That embarrassed the commissioners, and they removed the provision. Still, the lease stayed on track.
Then, in late April, someone placed an anonymous call to the Fair Political Practices Commission's tip line, advising them that Sandbrook was angling for a job with USC after the lease was concluded. If true, that would be a conflict of interest. The FPPC opened a probe into the matter.
The L.A. Times did a story. Parks jumped on it, suggesting that Sandbrook was guilty of a felony and calling for a delay on the lease vote.
In response, Yaroslavsky all but accused Parks of being the source of the anonymous tip. (Parks' office denies that, and also denies leaking the lease draft to the Times.)
“Shame,” Yaroslavsky said at a public hearing. “Shame on you.”
The commission voted 8-1 to approve the lease, with Parks opposed. Last month, the FPPC cleared Sandbrook, ruling there was no evidence he was interested in a job at USC.
The deal to transfer Coliseum operations to USC still must win approval from the state. That seems likely to occur within the next several months. Assuming the lease goes through, Parks will have lost three levers of power in the space of a year.
This year, Parks' district was redrawn to exclude USC. He's also lost his chairmanship of the city Budget and Finance Committee and, thanks to the lease, soon likely will have his position on the Coliseum Commission reduced to a ceremonial role.
But his son promises he'll continue to have a voice.
“He's still the most quoted councilmember at City Hall,” Parks Jr. says. “He'll probably be that forever.”