Opinion

Four reasons to be glad a federal grand jury is investigating L.A. Unified's iPads

Confidence is waning over whether L.A. Unified can investigate itself

There was a lot to dislike about the proposal to buy $500 million worth of iPads for Los Angeles Unified School District students (plus $800 million for the necessary broadband at schools): The price, the incomplete curriculum, the paucity of serious questions about whether all of these devices were necessary, the failure to plan for obvious things that could go wrong. But the news this week that it’s now the subject of a federal grand jury investigation, with 20 cartons of materials seized by the FBI, was a big surprise.

But possibly a good surprise, in its way. Though L.A. Unified’s own inspector general is also conducting his second inquiry into the iPad purchase—this time into the emails among former Supt. John Deasy, his deputy Jaime Aquino and representatives of Apple and Pearson, which at first appeared to be the early and only winners of the technology contract—there’s reason for the public to lack confidence in the district’s ability to investigate its technological missteps.

Consider:

--A first investigation into the iPad contract, by L.A. Unified’s Inspector General Ken Bramlett, covered only the bidding process and never even found the controversial emails that appear to indicate a close working relationship between the two district leaders and the two future contract bidders, a good year before the contract went out to bid.

--The school board refused to make that first investigative report public, though it had the authority to do so. Meanwhile, after public records requests revealed the emails, the inspector general began a second investigation into those and whatever earlier relationship might have existed between Deasy and the winning contractors.

--Another, separate audit by the inspector general’s office, into the catastrophically troubled student tracking system, never questioned Deasy about a series of bungles up and down the line, despite numerous earlier complaints that he had been warned repeatedly that the software was not ready to be implemented and went ahead anyway. That left a glaring gap in the probe. It’s unclear why Deasy wasn’t interviewed, but he’s still in the district’s employ until the end of 2014; it would seem that part of his job would be to help with any audits.

--When the school board reached a severance agreement with Deasy in October, it issued a statement that board members do “not believe that the superintendent engaged in any ethical violations or unlawful acts” in regard to the emails. That statement was completely inappropriate considering that Bramlett’s investigation into the emails was still underway—as it is now. The board has no authority to direct the inspector general’s investigations—but it can hire and fire the person heading the staff office, and controls his office’s budget. (In fact, just a week or so before the board made its statement, Bramlett’s office pleaded for more funding, according to a KPCC report.) The statement could be seen as pressuring the inspector general not to find wrongdoing; in any case, board members are in no position to prejudge the matter.

For that matter, none of us are in that position. The emails could be perfectly legal and appropriate—or not. It’s unknown whether even a federal grand jury will be able to ferret out the full picture, since many earlier emails were apparently deleted and aren’t available. And if it uncovers ethical rather than legal problems, the public might never know; the grand jury is looking for evidence of crime. Federal crime at that. This might not be the best mechanism for examining the iPad purchase. But the investigation at least ensures that an independent authority is examining the matter, unimpeded by internal politics or pressures.  

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