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L.A. County prosecutors probe L.A. Unified’s food services for possible violations

L.A. Unified kitchen

Kitchen worker Linda Gomez stocks bananas in a display case inside the cafeteria during lunch time at Bravo Medical Magnet High School in Los Angeles

(Christina House / For The Times)

Prosecutors are reviewing the results of the L.A. Unified school district’s confidential investigation into its food services division for possible  violations, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office said Monday.

The report will be reviewed to see whether there is sufficient evidence to file charges, spokeswoman Jane Robison said, adding that it was not known how long the review would take.

Earlier this year, the district’s Office of the Inspector General released a 33-page audit that found mismanagement, inappropriate spending and ethical breaches in the nation’s second largest school meal operation.

The district’s investigation, which included details beyond those released in the audit, was turned over to prosecutors Monday.

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The audit raised questions about former Food Services Director David Binkle’s management of a marketing program launched by his predecessor in 2010 and funded by eight major food vendors who received $750 million in contracts under a revamped procurement system.

To win contracts, the vendors agreed to contribute a total of more than $1.5 million to promote the district’s healthful food initiatives and educate students about nutrition.

The marketing helped draw national attention -- including praise from First Lady Michelle Obama -- to L.A. Unified’s efforts to shift to menu options with lower amounts of fat, sodium and sugar.

But the audit raised questions about some of the vendor payments: $117,500 to philanthropist Meg Chernin’s Los Angeles Fund for Public Education; $65,000 to place Los Angeles Dodgers photos on school milk cartons; $6,800 for employee travel and conferences; and $581,000 to two Los Angeles public relations firms, RL Public Relations and Tatum Wan Co., among others.

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The district axed the marketing program this year. Auditors accused Binkle, a nationally known food services director who left his post last month, of potential ethical breaches involving a private consulting firm he runs and a failure to report vendor-paid travel to food conferences.

Binkle, 53, has denied any wrongdoing and said all travel and marketing activities were legal, specified in the vendor contract proposals and approved by his superiors.

He also has denied any conflict-of-interest relating to his private company. He said state law doesn’t require disclosure of outside income from his California Culinary Consulting firm because it was not earned in the same jurisdiction as the district. The firm’s annual revenue last year was $19,000 -- not $950,000 as listed in the audit, he said.

Binkle declined further comment Monday.

L.A. Unified’s $354-million food program serves 716,000 meals daily to 615,000 students at 1,200 locations.

Twitter: @TeresaWatanabe

 

 

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