PUBLIC-INTEREST LAWYERS SUE FOR STUDENTS, PARENTS.
Outraged that the District Attorney's Office has not prosecuted anyone for the Belmont Learning Center fiasco, two public-interest lawyers have filed a lawsuit on behalf of students and parents, seeking restitution from companies involved in building the environmentally plagued downtown campus.
Attorneys Mark Adams and Roger Carrick filed suit late Thursday, one day before the three-year statute of limitations was to run out for Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley to file charges on alleged environmental crimes. Cooley expects to issue a report in the future.
``It's fair to say all of us involved in this effort believe you couldn't look at yourself in the mirror and say I have a chance to do something, but didn't,'' said Carrick, who helped the Los Angeles Unified School District investigate the Belmont scandal.
``This lawsuit may not succeed, but we could not let a deadline pass without fighting for the children. It's absolutely astonishing that corporations in the heart of the city that affects children would get a pass from the district attorney.''
Filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, the 27-page suit charges a host of private corporations and individuals with fraudulent concealment, misrepresentation, conspiracy, grand theft, illegal deposit of hazardous substances, unlawful business practices and conduct in violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
The allegations in the lawsuit largely mirror findings of a Sept. 13, 1999, report by LAUSD Inspector General Don Mullinax, who found widespread wrongdoing, incompetence and gross mismanagement of the Belmont project.
Among the defendants named in the suit are developer Temple Beaudry Partners, one-time district counsel O'Melveny & Myers, and architectural firm McLarand, Vasquez & Partners, as well as construction giants Kajima Urban Development Corp. and Turner Construction Co.
The lawsuit also lists as defendants David Cartwright, a partner at O'Melveny & Myers, whom the school district unsuccessfully sued for rendering bad legal advice; Dominic Shambra, a retired LAUSD administrator who conceived the Belmont project; Kenneth J. Reizes, a project executive for the Belmont developer; and Ernesto Vasquez, an architect.
Doug Dowie, spokesman for Kajima, the leading partner in Temple Beaudry Partners, declined to comment, saying the firm has not yet seen the lawsuit. Other defendants did not return phone calls for comment. Many had denied any wrongdoing. The District Attorney's Office also did not return a call for comment.
The suit demands restitution for parents of 10,000 students who otherwise would have been able to attend Belmont, their neighborhood school, if it had opened as originally scheduled in 1999.
The board halted construction of Belmont in January 2000 because of environmental concerns. Sixty percent built, the school has already cost the district some $175 million, and about $100 million is expected to be spent to complete the campus.
As Belmont sits unused, Carrick contends that children's education in the neighborhood is getting shortchanged because they are forced to attend overcrowded campuses or ride buses to faraway schools.
``We want to get for the children the value of the education they would have enjoyed in a new school with a new curriculum, with a new group of teachers and administrators who are dedicated to their neighborhood,'' said Carrick.
Among the plaintiffs is parent Fernando Contreras, who has two children, Veronica and Geraldo, who would have gone to Belmont if the school had opened. The Contreras' home was condemned to make way for the school.
``It's been twenty-something years that (school officials) have been promising they are going to build schools,'' said Contreras. ``I don't know how they ended up spending all this money and not built anything.''
When children ride buses to attend faraway schools, he said, they miss out on before- or after-school programs and therefore are disadvantaged and deserve restitution.
No current school district employees or former school board members are named in the suit, even though they have been faulted in the past for their role in the development of Belmont. Carrick said he chose to focus on private corporations because he felt they were most responsible for the debacle. The district, he said, had relied on them for their expertise.
Both Carrick and Adams are veteran public-interest attorneys. Carrick has worked with the city attorney against tobacco companies on secondhand smoke and fought to stop the spraying of pesticides in Los Angeles to kill fruit flies. Adams has spent years in the Belmont neighborhood fighting against slumlords.
``Belmont represents everything that is wrong with the LAUSD,'' said Adams.
``It does really represent everything that is wrong with how L.A. operates. How can it be that a public agency spends $175 million on a school that never opens, and nobody is jailed for that? How can that be?''