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SCANDAL FIGURES SAY THEY FOLLOWED LAUSD ORDERS.

Byline: Greg Gittrich Daily News Staff Writer

Amid a swirl of developments in the Belmont scandal, key figures identified in documents as responsible for allowing oil-contaminated soil to be used in site preparation for the nation's costliest school said Tuesday they were following orders from the project's lead contractor and the LAUSD.

The statements came amid a chorus of official demands for criminal investigations into the construction of the Belmont Learning Center and the abrupt resignation of the Los Angeles Unified School District lawyer involved in an attempt to weaken environmental protections for new school sites.

At the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting, Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich held up a copy of Tuesday's Daily News and called for a grand jury inquiry into whether contractors and LAUSD officials conspired to skew toxicity tests at the site.

Turning up the heat, Don Mullinax, the school district's director of internal audits and special investigations, vowed to ask the District Attorney's Office to issue a number of search warrants to uncover all the information about soil contamination at Belmont.

A Daily News investigation turned up construction notes and financial documents, which provide evidence contractors building the $170 million facility mixed tons of clean and contaminated soil. The financial documents and district correspondence also indicated that officials left soil contaminated with crude oil on the site and used it to grade the sloping property.

Despite repeated requests for the documents cited by the Daily News, Mullinax said Tuesday night his office still had not received a substantial amount of the material.

``We will pursue getting search warrant authority from the District Attorney's Office,'' Mullinax said. ``If the lack of information given to us at this point is a sign of how much people are going to cooperate with us, we're going to need that authority.''

Mullinax expressed most interest in 60 pages of construction field notes compiled by Steve Croasdale, an environmental consultant for Law/Crandall, a firm hired by the district to monitor soil excavation at Belmont.

In those notes, Croasdale wrote machinery used by Calex Engineering, the excavating subcontractor, was mixing clean and contaminated soil, thereby jeopardizing the validity of soil samples.

On Tuesday, Gerry Gibbs, a general manager for Calex, questioned the findings, arguing the machinery used was standard earth-moving equipment.

``Law/Crandall's people had the authority to red tag our work and stop it. If Croasdale felt (the work) was improper he had the authority to stop it.''

Law/Crandall's reports were submitted to the district on Feb. 11, but never handed over to officials on the School Safety Team. Law/Crandall continues to stand by Croasdale's field notes, officials said.

Following orders

According to Gibbs, the excavation techniques used by Calex followed directives from district administrators and Kajima Urban Development, the lead company of Belmont's construction team.

``None of it came from us . . . We were written and directed how to do the work and told what type of machinery to use,'' he said. ``We have complete full documentation so we're not worried. We know our reputation is going to remain in good standing.''

Gibbs refused to specify who issued the directives, but pledged to turn over the documents to Mullinax.

Kajima did not return phone calls Tuesday, and district officials said they would not comment on Gibbs' claims until Mullinax' investigation is completed.

Memos written by Richard Lui, the LAUSD environmental health assessor for Belmont, indicate the district was aware of the soil contamination before Calex began its work at Belmont.

In a Jan. 13, 1998, memo, Lui wrote: ``Since crude oil is not regulated as a hazardous substance under (federal law), no additional removal of soil impacted with crude oil is necessary.''

Lui said Tuesday he did not make any of the decisions without permission from his supervisors.

``I didn't act alone,'' he said. ``My director and other people knew and approved of everything I was doing.''

Lui refused to discuss the decisions at length, but argued no laws had been broken.

When environmental inspectors from the state Department of Toxic Substances Control halted construction of Belmont in February, Superintendent Ruben Zacarias instituted a series of guidelines for the district, including a requirement to remove or remediate all petroleum-contaminated soil on campuses.

High levels of methane rising from the petroleum under Belmont have been detected in soil samples. Methane is extremely explosive when it accumulates and can carry aromatic carcinogens, including benzene, to the surface.

Angelo Bellomo, the top environmental scientist for the district School Safety Team, said a new battery of tests required by the state may be inadequate because of the information obtained by the Daily News. Bellomo said cost for the work will likely approach $1.7 million.

``The idea that the safety team only now has come aware of these facts, I find to be more than troubling,'' said Assemblyman Scott Wildman, D-Glendale, chairman of a joint legislative audit committee investigating Belmont.

``This is mushrooming into the disaster we expected. The district needs to be held accountable in terms of its administrative staff, and several people need to be held accountable criminally.''

Inquiry sought

The motion introduced by Antonovich asks the District Attorney's Office to investigate any possible criminal action that occurred with regard to Belmont.

In February, the board unanimously approved an Antonovich motion for a grand jury investigation into financial and environmental problems at Belmont. ``So far, the silence from the grand jury and the district attorney on this vital issue has been deafening,'' Antonovich said.

The grand jury has authority to investigate matters of its own choosing, but it is the district attorney who launches grand jury criminal probes. Thus far, the District Attorney's Office has not opened an investigation.

Meanwhile, Brad Hogin, a LAUSD assistant general counsel, resigned Tuesday night. In recent weeks, Hogin had taken responsibility for making unauthorized amendments to a state Senate bill governing the selection of school sites. The changes, which contradicted district policy, cited the same federal law Lui cited in his memo to avoid excavating soil soaked with crude oil.

In a brief letter to district officials, Hogin made no mention of a recent inquiry into the amendments convened by state Sen. Tom Hayden, D-Los Angeles.

``I have determined that, on reflection, I would be happier in the long term in private practice,'' he wrote.

While Hogin could not be reached immediately for comment, board members and Zacarias issued a joint statement calling Hogin ``a model of integrity'' and ``a person of strong character.''

Board President Victoria Castro said Hogin had been ``crucified by Sen. Hayden.''Castro, the most vocal supporter of Belmont, has refused to comment directly on the Daily News findings, referring all questions to a district spokesman.

Hayden said her use of the word ``crucified'' was ``a little excessive.''

``As far as I could tell, Mr. Hogin was offered up by the district as a human sacrifice,'' Hayden said. ``The responsibility goes back to the longtime Belmont proponents, including Vicky Castro. They have supported the building of this school regardless of its cost and toxic problems.''

Daily News Staff writers David Baker and Douglas Haberman contributed to this story.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 2, 1999
Words:1190
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