Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley announced Monday that he will not file criminal charges over the ill-fated Belmont Learning Complex, formally closing an investigation that had lingered for two years.
Cooley echoed several prior reports in sharply criticizing decisions that went into the construction of the still unfinished $175-million school atop a hill just west of downtown Los Angeles.
“Would I have liked to have hauled someone in by the collar? Absolutely, yes,” Cooley said at a news conference, where he described his probe as far more comprehensive than any that preceded it. But “we had to go where the facts led us.”
The $1.5-million investigation examined many issues relating to the school, where construction was halted in 1999 after potentially explosive and toxic gases were found under the buildings. The Los Angeles school board moved to restart construction the next year, but reversed itself again last year when it announced that an earthquake fault had been discovered under the site.
The project, designed to relieve overcrowding in other Los Angeles schools, remains in limbo. School officials are considering raising buildings away from the gas deposits, making Belmont into an office building or tearing it down. It already is the most expensive school construction effort in California history.
Cooley’s prosecutors concluded that the site contained no hazardous waste and that the developers had not tried to conceal the dangerous gases. Nor had contractors overbilled during construction, an allegation made by the Los Angeles Unified School District, which lost an arbitration finding on the issue.
Nor could the law firm representing the school district on the project, O’Melveny & Myers, be prosecuted for conflict of interest, even though it also represented one of the developers: It had received a waiver from school officials, Cooley said.
In his successful 2000 campaign for district attorney, Cooley criticized his predecessor, Gil Garcetti, for what he called a “whitewash” when Garcetti declined to prosecute anyone for Belmont. Cooley reopened the investigation.
On Monday, the top aide Cooley had selected to direct that effort used the same term in describing the outcome of the new probe.
“It’s a whitewash,” said attorney Anthony Patchett, who was removed from his position in the summer of 2001 after he unsuccessfully argued for criminal charges. He later left the district attorney’s office. “I’m extremely disappointed,” he said.
On the other side, the targets of the investigation wondered -- some privately and some less so -- why prosecutors had waited years to announce their findings.
“It sounds like it’s not much different from what Gil Garcetti’s people said -- and they didn’t spend $1.5 million doing it,” said Dominic Shambra, the Los Angeles Unified official who was the driving force behind Belmont.
One new element that the report adds to the long-running Belmont saga is the disclosure that the construction company of Shambra’s son, Nicholas, received $43,000 worth of business from Kajima, one of the partners that developed Belmont, in 1998 and 1999. One check from Kajima for $6,279 ended up in Dominic Shambra’s personal bank account, less $1,279 cash back.
The elder Shambra said he had lent his son money earlier and was being repaid, an explanation that prosecutors decided was supported by Shambra’s bank records. The payments to the Shambras occurred after the elder Shambra had left the school district and years after the Belmont project was launched. Prosecutors concluded there was no evidence of a crime.
Prosecutors used the Los Angeles County Grand Jury to subpoena bank records, but did not summon any of the targets of the investigation to answer questions under oath, officials said. During the campaign, Cooley specifically vowed to bring those responsible for Belmont before a grand jury.
On Monday, Cooley said that had turned out not to be necessary. “Many of the participants made themselves available voluntarily,” he said. “Many of the key figures were very cooperative.”
Only days after coming into office, Cooley warned the Los Angeles school board that it might have violated the state’s open meetings law by gathering in closed session to discuss whether to sell the Belmont site or take bids to resume construction.
The turning point in the investigation came in July 2001, Cooley said, when members of the task force and top officials in the district attorney’s office gathered to review the evidence. All prosecutors except Patchett concluded that no crimes had been committed.
An environmental consultant, Geomatrix, that had been retained by the district attorney’s office concluded that the site was not contaminated and was safe, provided that a mitigation system was installed to protect against the toxic and explosive gases.
Cooley said today’s school board elections had not affected the timing of the release. The two senior prosecutors overseeing the investigation, Curt Hazell and John Zajec, said they had not been aware the election was imminent.
Cooley was highly critical of Los Angeles Unified’s handling of the Belmont project, but said that all the moves had been legal under state law. The district chose the highest bidder for the project because it used a “design-build” process that allowed it to factor the cost out of proposals. It allowed construction companies to bill it up front for costs before work was done, then failed to recoup money that it alleged it had been overbilled through arbitration.
The district attorney recommended a number of reforms, from providing more environmental oversight to re-evaluating the design-build system. “You’re going to see this kind of public works disaster committed in the future if they keep using this technique,” he said.
Supt. Roy Romer said Los Angeles Unified already has implemented Cooley’s recommendations, though he argued that the design-build concept must be retained. “It is something that requires strict observation, but it can be a useful tool on certain projects,” he said.
School district Inspector General Don Mullinax, whose investigators served on Cooley’s task force, declined to comment Monday. Cooley made a point of saying that Mullinax’s office is critical to ensuring appropriate expenditures in school construction.
Roger Carrick, an environmental attorney who represented the inspector general during his probe of Belmont, scoffed at the idea that no one could be prosecuted for the fiasco. “Mr. Cooley should be ashamed of himself,” he said.