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Computer Charges : School Officials Accused of Misleading Board on Purchase

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

County auditors are investigating a computer analyst’s claim that top county education officials deliberately provided misleading information to persuade school board members to purchase an $8.6-million computer system.

Computer analyst Allen M. Weil said his superiors asked him to produce graphs to show that the old computer system was overburdened and inadequate, at a time when the old computer was running at just over half capacity. Officials later prepared reports that misled the board about the capabilities of the old computer and the need for a new one, added Weil, an analyst for the Los Angeles County Office of Education since 1977.

The county school board authorized the computer purchase in January, 1991, for its headquarters in Downey. Including finance charges, the computer will cost $15 million over 10 years.

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School administrators have denied Weil’s allegations, and some of them have filed a lawsuit accusing Weil of libel and slander. A Dec. 17 memo from top computer operations administrators to the school board says the management team “has not misled the superintendent and Board. . . . There has been NO mismanagement. . . . Were figures provided to you by us manipulated? NO.”

County Schools Supt. Stuart Gothold said that, based on what he knows, officials have not misled the board of education.

Some board members, including Maria Elena Gaitan, have expressed concern over the issue. “I wouldn’t be happy about someone misrepresenting information knowingly,” Gaitan said. “That would be a very serious issue.”

Weil said he approached the school board and other agencies after becoming convinced that Gothold and other administrators were not responding adequately.

“The bottom line to my being an informant,” Weil wrote to auditors, “was to make an effort to see that the taxpayers got a fair return for their money and that (school board members) were given a chance to perform the duties for which they were selected.

“This is not possible if they are going to be given lies and misrepresented data in connection with the things about which they are trying to make a responsible decision.”

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The county auditor’s special investigations unit confirmed that it is looking into the matter, but it would not comment on specifics. Weil’s allegations are spelled out, however, in court documents filed in connection with lawsuits over the matter.

Weil accuses three officials of misleading the board of education and of asking him to provide doctored statistical information. The three are Calvin Hall, assistant superintendent of business; Jay Stevens, director of networks and information services, and James Magill, assistant to Stevens.

Weil said that he originally produced altered graphs out of a willingness to follow orders but that he eventually refused. He said he was concerned that the information could be misused. He does not know how the graphs were used, he added. However, senior staff members did present misleading written materials to the school board about the need for a new computer, Weil said.

The three officials named in Weil’s allegations have sued him for libel and slander, accusing Weil of conducting an irrational personal vendetta against them. Their lawsuit portrays Weil as a bitter, combative employee. The suit describes Weil’s patrolling the parking lot issuing written warnings to cars not parked entirely within the lines of their parking spaces.

Weil denies the allegations and has filed a countersuit alleging that officials have harassed him since he raised concerns about the computer purchase and other problems. In a memo to the school board, Weil said that, as part of the harassment, he has been falsely accused of theft, insubordination and general office misconduct.

Weil’s countersuit also names Gothold and the county education office, accusing them of not protecting his right to raise concerns about the computer purchase and for permitting the alleged harassment.

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“I vehemently deny those charges as they relate to me,” Gothold said.

He added that he believes that the investigation will exonerate senior staff members. Administrators found to have deliberately deceived the board of education could face discipline ranging “all the way from letter of reprimand to dismissal,” Gothold said. Weil also could face discipline for making false or misleading allegations, he said.

Weil’s job is already in jeopardy. Gothold recently decided to eliminate Weil’s position as part of a budget-reduction plan. Gothold said the move was driven solely by the need to cut about $4 million from the department’s $334-million budget. Gothold said that the county education office has eliminated about 120 jobs since July but that the cuts will probably result in only a handful of layoffs, including that of Weil.

Weil said he has been notified in writing that he will lose his job Feb. 10. Based on conversations with administrators and colleagues, Weil said, he believes that the impending layoff is retaliation for being a whistle-blower. He is considering filing a wrongful-termination lawsuit, he said.

The 61-year-old analyst said he first learned of the alleged deceptions months after the purchase and installation of the new computer. Weil said he happened to see a copy of an old board report that contained the allegedly inaccurate information. He took his concerns about the computer purchase to Gothold soon after, in October, 1991.

The superintendent authorized an investigation by consultant Harry P. Koulos. After getting the Koulos report two months later, Gothold wrote the board that there was “no evidence of mismanagement.”

“Many of the issues were the result of differing professional judgment regarding a course of action,” Gothold wrote.

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Dissatisfied, Weil asked other agencies, including state and county prosecutors, to investigate.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Laura A. Aalto said she talked with Weil a number of times. “He was a very credible person,” she said. But even if Weil was telling the truth, the account contained no allegation of a criminal act. “There isn’t any law that says you can’t lie. Maybe that’s not as it should be,” she said.

Weil’s allegations raised concern among some school board members, who urged Gothold to ask for the auditors’ probe. The superintendent authorized the investigation in the middle of last year.

A draft of that report is in the hands of school board members, but its results have not been released.

Weil does not claim that administrators benefited personally from their alleged misrepresentations. Rather his allegations allude to a longstanding, cozy relationship between top administrators who lacked needed technical expertise and the computer vendor, Bull HN Information Systems Inc.

In addition to misstating facts, these officials too readily accepted the sales pitch of Bull HN and minimized costly past problems with the company, he said.

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Bull HN, or its corporate ancestor Honeywell Inc., has been the main provider of computer equipment for the county office of education since the late 1970s. According to Weil, problems with Bull HN go back more than a decade. For years, the county was losing data because of costly system failures, he said.

In 1986, the county office purchased new equipment, including a $4.8-million computer, to correct data problems and update the system.

The education office continued to lose data, Weil said. In addition, the 1986 computer was a “dead-end system,” meaning that its capacity to follow commands and perform calculations could not be expanded, he said. That limitation would have ultimately required the county education office to purchase additional processing equipment or a new computer but not as early as January, 1991, he said.

If the board had known the truth, it could have held Bull HN financially accountable for poor past performance and for selling the allegedly inadequate computer in 1986, Weil contended.

Local Bull HN representatives referred inquiries to the corporate office in Billerica, Mass. Company officials refused to answer specific questions. Instead, they issued an eight-line statement saying that prior to the recent computer purchase, Bull had taken part in an 18-month evaluation of the computer needs of the county education office.

The earlier Koulos investigation concluded, however, that Bull HN’s equipment and service technicians had performed acceptably. The officials named in Weil’s suit--Gothold, Hall, Stevens and Magill--concur.

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Switching to another computer vendor in midstream would have been prohibitively expensive, Gothold added. “For better or worse, we were with (Bull HN) in this migration to bigger and better things,” Gothold said.

Administrators added that Bull HN’s price for the new computer included a fair trade-in for the old machine. They insist that the decision to buy a new computer was made at the right time because the old machine was not completing important tasks, such as processing payrolls quickly enough.

Among other tasks, the computer handles the payroll of every school district in the county except Los Angeles Unified, Long Beach Unified and Norwalk-La Mirada Unified. Data processing is a main function of the county education office. The office also develops curriculum, oversees school district budgets and directly operates education programs for disabled children, wards of the juvenile court and other special groups.

Ultimately, board of education members must decide if they were misinformed and if so, how grave these alleged deceptions were. Board members, who are appointed by county supervisors, are responsible for approving major expenditures, such as the new computer.

Board member Michaelene Wagner said she wished that senior administrators had provided more complete information.

“They never even told us we had bought a dead-end system,” Wagner said of senior staff. “They just said it ‘can no longer be enhanced.’ Maybe they were embarrassed to say that it was a dead-end. I would be embarrassed if I had been responsible.

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“They didn’t necessarily lie,” she said. “They just didn’t tell us, and I wasn’t smart enough to ask the right question.

“When I’m told: ‘We don’t have a choice. We’re reaching alarming capacity. We’re backed up against a wall’--I don’t know enough to fight them,” Wagner said. “I have to take them at their word.”

Wagner added that, based on what she has since learned, the decision to buy a new computer was probably still correct. And she isn’t willing to “hang somebody” over the dispute, she said.

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