The Belmont Learning Complex, the nation‘s most expensive high school project, sits half-finished on an old downtown oil field, a stark symbol of incompetence in the country’s second-largest school system. But last week, even as the school board sacked the developer and geared up to decide the project‘s fate, a major reinterpretation of Belmont was about to be launched.
This version of events contends that damning revelations have been overstated. In this rendition, the Belmont debacle is really the tale of how short-term political motivations coalesced into a cynical conspiracy, depriving poor minority students of a desperately needed school.
So goes the case being put together by O’Melveny & Myers, the city‘s most prestigious law firm, against its onetime client, the L.A. Unified School District. O’Melveny attorneys represented the district at Belmont until early 1999, and now L.A. Unified, on the advice of its internal auditor, is suing O‘Melveny for malpractice.
Faced with the sternest attack in memory on its reputation — not to mention its bank account — O’Melveny has evidently decided that the best defense is a good offense. The law firm has issued subpoenas all over town to parties that had nothing directly to do with its alleged transgressions. The apparent goal is to turn up dirt elsewhere, discredit Belmont critics, and make O‘Melveny and the Belmont complex look clean by comparison. And internal O’Melveny documents, obtained by the Weekly, purport that the effort has hit pay dirt.
Specifically, O‘Melveny is gathering evidence, through the deposition of witnesses, that a lower-cost environmental fix for Belmont was suppressed from full consideration before the Belmont Commission, which was set up to review the project. The cost of addressing oil-field contamination will be a key consideration in the school board’s decision on whether to finish the project.
Word of the depositions was enough to start one project stalwart crowing. “Finally there is somebody with some resources to get the story out,” said the former district administrator, who requested anonymity because of his own legal troubles.
The “story” is also likely to include allegations that members of the school district‘s safety team — which inaugurated the environmental review that imperiled the project — are guilty of political and financial conflicts of interest.
Skeptics question how far this strategy will get O’Melveny. After all, the district‘s basic malpractice allegations have nothing to do with the safety team or the Belmont Commission. Rather, the district’s complaint alleges, among other things, that O‘Melveny, in the person of real estate partner David Cartwright, negotiated a deal with the lead developer, the Kajima Corporation, that deprived the school system of customary and needed protections, such as a clause permitting the district to terminate the project voluntarily without facing extensive liability.
The O’Melveny case didn‘t get any easier when the district last week dismissed the Kajima-led team for failing to winterize and secure the Belmont site in time to meet a district-imposed deadline. Kajima’s exit has deep symbolic significance because, in the beginning, Belmont was not a battle over environmental issues or whether a school should be built, but a tilt over whether Kajima deserved to be the chosen developer. From there, the contentiousness engulfed the entire school district to the point that Kajima‘s departure settles almost nothing.
A fundamental part of the O’Melveny strategy is simply to defend the Belmont project. To this end, O‘Melveny has hired top-gun political consultant Cerrell Associates, as well as the high-powered law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, to buttress its in-house expertise.
If Belmont opens, the endeavor can never be characterized as a total loss, and O’Melveny‘s liability could be reduced accordingly. But in depositions, attorneys also are reaching into the motivations and behavior of critics. One focus is the school-district safety team, created in 1998 and anchored by consultant Angelo Bellomo and attorney Barry Groveman.
The safety team was originally formed to deal with concerns at Jefferson Middle School, but district officials, soon added Belmont to the platter. Bellomo and Groveman, along with state officials, urged new environmental testing for petroleum byproducts and other contaminants. The result has been a halt to construction while a state-supervised analysis is completed.
Bellomo is vulnerable to critics because he served simultaneously as both a leader of the safety team and a principal with Environmental Strategies Corporation (ESC), a company brought in to assess the Belmont site. Bellomo thus had a supervisory role over a company to which he had direct financial ties. The first separate contract with Bellomo apparently dates only from September, about a year after he joined the safety team under the auspices of ESC. Bellomo said he cut ties with ESC and formed his own consulting company to eliminate the questionable arrangement. As evidence, he provided the Weekly with letters and e-mail documenting that he himself had raised the conflict issue with district officials and followed their direction in handling the matter.
The attack on Groveman is not limited to the O’Melveny camp. Groveman, a candidate for district attorney against incumbent Gil Garcetti, has represented the district on environmental matters for about 10 years, off and on. Some critics from the left consider him an accomplice to an LAUSD environmental apparatus that was incapable of insuring safe school sites. They join O‘Melveny, the district’s old guard and Groveman‘s political opponents in tagging him as a latter-day environmental hard-liner, manipulating the district’s problems for personal publicity.
“He‘s been here for 10 years, and now he’s telling us how screwed up we are,” said one veteran district administrator. In recent months, he went on, “we were paying him, and he would tell other people about how bad we were before he would tell us. This may be an experiment in the public funding of a district attorney‘s race.”
Groveman has vehemently contested such attacks, citing his activism in environmental politics and his past as a county prosecutor of environmental crimes.
Groveman also raised eyebrows by playing a central role in the recent installation of Howard Miller as the school system’s chief operating officer. Fallout over that event led to a public dispute between the school board and district Superintendent Ruben Zacarias, who finally agreed to a buyout of his contract.
O‘Melveny also wants to show that addressing environmental problems at Belmont would be less expensive than the $60 million figure advanced by some opponents, including former District Attorney Ira Reiner, who served as executive director of the Belmont Commission. The internal O’Melveny documents reference the deposition testimony of Louis Pandolfi and Bryan A. Stirrat as demonstrating that information justifying a lower-cost mitigation system has been suppressed. Both Pandolfi and Stirrat were consultants brought in by the Belmont Commission. Neither returned calls from the Weekly.
A spokesman for O‘Melveny declined to comment, but an internal document asserts, “As you will see, it’s beginning to look like a rather grand conspiracy involving ESC, Bellomo and Reiner to suppress the true cost of the mitigation and inflate it to achieve their political objective of killing the school.”
A note at the bottom plainly indicates that O‘Melveny is preparing for the court of public opinion as well as a court of law: “You will be getting the minuscript [sic] version of the transcript and the exhibits in the near future. If you are going to talk to the press, use the actual exhibits since the above is reconstructed.”
Although some of their contentions may prove to have merit, it’s more than a little inconsistent for O‘Melveny attorneys to be complaining today about the suppression of information regarding Belmont. Attorney Cartwright and retired school-district planning director Dominic Shambra, were virtual masters of the art when they held sway at L.A. Unified. As documented in earlier Weekly stories, both had, for several years, successfully silenced or outmaneuvered internal and external Belmont critics. And their presentations to the school board were strategically selective, directing board members inalterably toward their speculative Belmont proposals.
At the time, they characterized their tactical maneuvers as a reasonable reaction to an anti-Belmont conspiracy. While there’s no question that Belmont critics sometimes worked in concert — out of a variety of political and personal motives — no conspiracy allegations have yet held together.
That won‘t stop O’Melveny from trying to make the case, out of self-interest. Among those receiving a subpoena is David Koff, a senior researcher for Local 11 of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union. Koff is the single individual most responsible for uncovering and skillfully exploiting damaging revelations about Belmont. He took up the cause as part of a unionization battle with Kajima, which has an ownership interest at the anti-union New Otani Hotel downtown.
His prime motivator, Kajima, has now departed the scene, perhaps for good. But Koff isn‘t ready suddenly to turn around and pledge support for finishing Belmont. Even for him, the issues at Belmont have become larger than Kajima. As for the subpoena, he intends to oppose it: “There’s something called the First Amendment that guarantees my right to free speech and to petition the government. What do I have to do with Cartwright‘s alleged malpractice?”
Jim Crogan contributed to this story.