L.A. Unified will investigate food-service contracts at PUC charters

Supt. Cortines asks L.A. Unified to review charter schools' food contracts

L.A. Unified Supt. Ramon C. Cortines has asked for a district review of food service contracts at one of the region's largest charter school organizations.

The move came after The Times on Sunday published the findings of a state investigation into PUC Schools which showed an alleged conflict of interest in the awarding of millions of dollars in food contracts.

The state probe examined the dual roles of Jacqueline Duvivier Castillo, who is part owner of Better 4 You Meals and also was, until Saturday, PUC's director of business and development. Better 4 You Meals has provided food to the charter group for the last five years, documents provided by the state showed.

Investigators for the California Department of Education said the charter failed to demonstrate that the contract was "awarded properly despite the apparent conflict of interest."

In an email to The Times on Saturday, PUC said Duvivier Castillo would no longer be employed by the charter group.

Cortines said that he has asked the district's charter school division to look into the matter. Charters are typically authorized by a local school system but are managed independently and exempt from some rules that govern traditional public schools. They are publicly financed.

Most of PUC's schools are overseen by L.A. Unified. 

The L.A. County district attorney's office indicated Monday that it expected another, separate probe to be conducted by L.A. Unified's inspector general. The D.A.'s office said it was premature to comment on whether laws could have been broken.

"We will review the report by LAUSD's inspector general when it's completed," said D.A. spokeswoman Jane Robison.

It remained unclear Monday evening if such a review would be conducted. Inspector General Ken Bramlett said no decision had been made on whether he would conduct a separate investigation into the matter.

PUC was co-founded by Ref Rodriguez, a candidate for the L.A. Board of Education who serves on the PUC board and as treasurer of the group.

Rodriguez has declined to answer questions about the matter. But he issued a brief statement Friday in support of terminating the food contract. He was listed as chief executive on tax forms during the period when Better 4 You first began providing meals for PUC.

The Rodriguez campaign in Monday clarified the role of Duvivier Castillo, who had been a consultant. According to campaign documents, Better 4 You contributed $2,200 and the campaign also paid Duvivier Castillo $1,700 for election work.

The consulting fee related to help with election-related events, including the kick-off, said campaign manager Michael Soneff. Duvivier Castillo was reimbursed $1,053 for supplies she'd provided for events, he said.  Separately, another Better 4 You employee also donated $850 to help elect Rodriguez.

The election is May 19.

The state Department of Education, which released emails and documents about its investigation to The Times under the California Public Records Act, found that Duvivier Castillo failed to properly report her financial interests in Better 4 You. In addition, her company was ineligible for some of the food contracts because it lacked a health permit; it relied on a subcontractor to prepare meals, the review found.

PUC Chief Executive Jacqueline Elliot notified the school district of the state probe on Sunday and emphasized that the education department did not require a change in food vendors until the contract expired at the end of the current school year.

In a statement Monday, she said the group "acted quickly and appropriately by ending our relationship with the employee in question and by broadening our conflict-of-interest policy.”

Rodriguez is vying to unseat one-term incumbent Bennett Kayser to represent an area that encompasses Silver Lake, Los Feliz and Eagle Rock as well as much of southeast L.A. County.

PUC serves about 4,800 students in 15 schools, including in the east San Fernando Valley and north of downtown.


Twitter: @howardblume 

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