L.A. District Sues Its Lawyers Over Belmont

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The Los Angeles schools have sued the law firm that represented the district in its purchase of land for the Belmont Learning Complex, following a scathing report on the $200 million project that claims widespread negligence and malfeasance.

The report on the uncompleted facility--the most expensive public school ever constructed in the United States--accuses several contractors, school board members, and school employees involved in the project of negligence and malfeasance.

Last week, district officials filed a malpractice suit against the law firm and turned over related investigative files to four agencies for review: the city attorney, the Los Angeles County district attorney, the California attorney general, and the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles.

The high school sits west of downtown on an abandoned oil field that is contaminated with environmental hazards, including methane, which is explosive, and benzene, a potential carcinogen, according to a separate report issued recently by a state environmental agency. Because of the hazards, it is unclear whether the 35-acre complex, which is a little more than half-built, will ever open. ("Sticker Shock: $200 Million for an L.A. High School," April 7, 1999.)

'Poorly Planned'

The Los Angeles Unified School District's 15-volume report was released Sept. 14 after a six-month investigation by the district's director of internal audits and special investigations, Don Mullinax. It concluded that various groups and individuals associated with the project had engaged in a litany of "denying responsibility, deflecting criticism, and defending poorly planned and executed LAUSD actions with regard to Belmont."

Among the report's charges:

  • Former school boards violated various state laws in overseeing the Belmont complex.
  • Former and current top-level administrators, including Superintendent Ruben Zacarias, failed to adequately oversee the project.
  • State officials also failed in their oversight responsibilities.
  • Several consultants and vendors, including the law firm the district hired, breached their duties of providing professional service to the school system.

The report recommended that disciplinary action--up to and including termination--be taken against nine current school officials. Although Mr. Zacarias was not singled out for such action, the report recommended that the board consider his "failure to supervise the Belmont project in a diligent, professional, and effective manner" in his next performance evaluation.

Mr. Zacarias, who could not be reached last week, was the deputy superintendent when the school board approved the project in early 1997. He was named superintendent that summer.

In a statement made after a closed board meeting Sept. 16, the superintendent said that to avoid any conflict of interest and free up his time to pursue the 700,000-student district's academic concerns, he was turning over responsibility for any disciplinary action to the school board.

The newly elected board president, Genethia H. Hayes, accepted his proposal and indicated that "where warranted, disciplinary action will be taken ... by appropriate personnel."

Further Action Sought

The report also recommended civil action against five contractors or vendors for their alleged "breach of professional career duty" and possible legal action against the project's developer.

The law firm named in the suit, O'Melveny & Myers LLP, negotiated the purchase and oversaw the construction of the site. The district report says the firm failed to reveal the extent of the site's environmental problems to an earlier school board.

The firm issued a statement saying it would "defend the lawsuit vigorously."

Vol. 19, Issue 5, Page 3

Published in Print: September 29, 1999, as L.A. District Sues Its Lawyers Over Belmont
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