Reporting and Articles for Reuters
Gina Keating reported on law and general news, as well as the entertainment and technology industries for Reuters from 2002 to 2010.
O’Melveny’s Campaign to Defend Itself Breathes Life Into School
The piece that won the John Swett and Los Angeles Press Club awards.
Monday, July 30, 2001
By Gina Keating
Daily Journal Staff Writer
LOS ANGELES—At one time, the lawyers at O’Melveny & Myers could look out their office windows and smile at the $170 million high school sprouting at the northwestern edge of downtown.
As the law firm that advised the school district on the planning and construction of the Belmont Learning Complex, O’Melveny shared the dream of an impoverished downtown neighborhood that hadn’t seen a new high school since the Coolidge administration.
But in 1998, cracks began to appear in what critics dubbed the “Taj Mahal of high schools.” Environmental reports revealed underground pockets of toxic and explosive gases at the site. Investigations by the Los Angeles Unified School District and the state Legislature excoriated O’Melveny for advising the district to build the state-of-the-art high school on the former Los Angeles City Oilfield.
Editorials in the Los Angeles Times and the Daily News urged the school board to abandon the “money pit” of a project and reach into O’Melveny’s deep pockets for compensation.
By the end of 1999, the school board had voted to shutter the project, fired O’Melveny, its counsel for 30 years, and filed a $100 million malpractice suit against the firm for allegedly leading it into the scandal-plagued project.
With an eye toward mitigating the potentially mammoth malpractice damages and restoring the firm’s gilt-edged reputation, O’Melveny launched and paid for a remarkable public relations assault focused on three fronts: the media, local and state politicians, and grassroots organizations.
Among other things, the firm used the following tactics:
- Lobbied editorial boards and supplied materials and information to reporters at the Los Angeles Times, the Daily News and the LA Weekly.
- Provided technical and legal assistance to grass-roots organizations that protested the cancellation of the project.
- Spent 18 months and at least $140,000 actively lobbying City Council members.
- Canvassed for votes for a pro-Belmont bill in the state Legislature and trolled for cash to complete the school among a number of state appropriations committees.
While the saga is far from over, O’Melveny’s campaign succeeded in breathing new life into a once-dead school, possibly improved the firm’s odds in the massive malpractice case against it and buttressed the firm’s reputation as one of the city’s premier power brokers.
Not Just Another Law Firm
No law firm has been so closely tied to the rise of Los Angeles as O’Melveny & Myers, a pillar of the L.A. establishment almost from its inception 116 years ago. From its earliest days, the firm represented the forces that shaped Los Angeles: the powerful Dominguez, del Amo and Watson families, Pacific Mutual Life Insurance, Goodyear Tire & Rubber, Bing Crosby and Jimmy Stewart. In recognition of firm founder Henry O’Melveny’s contributions, the San Fernando Valley has both an O’Melveny Elementary School and an O’Melveny park.
In recent years, the law firm’s power was exemplified by former Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Throughout his stewardship, O’Melveny clung to its reputation as the city’s leading law firm as well as one of Los Angeles’ most important civic institutions.
Nowhere did this influence manifest itself more clearly than in the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots of 1992, when the Christopher Commission—using dozens of O’Melveny lawyers—established a blueprint to rebuild the city and its governance. The firm’s prestige continued to grow as Christopher headed Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton’s efforts to select a running mate and later was appointed secretary of state.
“In their world, prestige counts for a lot,” said LA Weekly staff writer Howard Blume, who has tracked the Belmont scandal since its beginnings. “In their world, prestige is the same as money.”
As Christopher ascended on the international stage, however, O’Melveny’s reputation as the city’s leading firm faltered.
At home, the firm faced intensified competition from newly aggressive rivals who realized that, to make a niche, they needed to become involved in civic affairs. The competition took its toll in many ways, including the chief measure of law firm clout: profits per partner.
The magnitude of the Belmont scandal had become apparent at the end of 1999, when O’Melveny lawyers received another disturbing wake-up call. That year, each Latham & Watkins partner earned just over $1 million; Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, O’Melveny’s historic bookend, brought in just over $900,000. O’Melveny came in at a disappointing $740,000.
“Belmont became for O’Melveny not just an embarrassing high-profile malpractice claim,” one observer said. “It became something much more; it spoke to the ability of the law firm to continue to be not just a player but the player in Los Angeles.”
A Desperately Needed School
In the late 1980s, O’Melveny’s client, the Los Angeles Unified School District, faced a severe shortage of classrooms in downtown Los Angeles, which serves a large proportion of poor, minority students. The district began searching for sites and in 1993 and 1994 paid $61 million for two parcels for an abandoned oil field at the corner of First Street and Beaudry Avenue that became the 35-acre Belmont site.
The developer and the contractor for the site fell under the corporate umbrella of Kajima Corp., the world’s largest construction firm and another longtime O’Melveny client. With written conflict of interest waivers in hand, two O’Melveny attorneys, partner David Cartwright and lawyer Lisa Gooden, sat on the advisory team that evaluated the proposals of the prospective developers in 1995.
That alleged conflict became the flash point for the continuing effort of Local 11 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union to press its demands on another site, the New Otani Hotel, of which Kajima was majority owner. (Kajima was the managing member of Belmont developer Temple Beaudry Partners. It was also the parent company of Kajima Construction Services Inc., which, together with Turner Construction Co., became joint venture Turner/Kajima, the general contractor for the project.)
Allegations that the school board had approved the building of the nation’s most expensive school on a contaminated site—potentially subjecting thousands of students to health risks—drew widespread negative coverage nationally and internationally. The New York Times, USA Today and CNN all gave the Belmont story extensive coverage. Even the international press was drawn to the tale of a city that couldn’t shoot straight.
“To call it a health hazard is an understatement—chances are, anyone attending school there would die in a fireball long before they contracted cancer,” the London Independent’s Andrew Gumbel wrote in July 1999. “Welcome to a city scandal of mind-boggling proportions, where money appears to have been tossed around without any of the most basic questions being asked.”
The school district’s internal audit and special investigations unit did start asking questions, in March 1999. Six months later, Inspector General Don Mullinax recommended suing O’Melveny for malpractice and suggested that the firm had a potential conflict of interest in the deal.
Construction on the school was halted in November 1999. Just two months later, a new anti-Belmont school board voted to scrap Belmont.
As its new counsel, the school district chose two of the top trial lawyers in America, Tom Girardi of Girardi & Keese, famous for winning the $333 million PG&E case portrayed in “Erin Brockovich,” and Joe Cotchett of Cotchett, Pitre & Simon, who until recently represented Modesto Congressman Gary Condit in the police hunt for missing intern Chandra Levy.
Now, O’Melveny faced not only a massive lawsuit but also two of Los Angeles’ legal giant killers. In its lawsuit, the school board claims that O’Melveny gave the district a string of bad advice that culminated in the approval of the Belmont school project. For that, the school is seeking more than $100 million from O’Melveny, which posted gross revenues of $372 million last year.
O’Melveny denies any liability and stands behind its work on the project.
“We expect to win the lawsuit because Mr. Cartwright represented the district with skill and integrity,” Ralph Shapira, the O’Melveny senior partner overseeing the Belmont litigation, said.
Much of the lawsuit will turn on Cartwright, who represented the district in the school’s development from 1993 until his discharge from the matter in February 1999.
He is accused of advising district officials to buy the property on the basis of an inadequate environmental analysis. Allegedly, Cartwright counseled the district to enter into a contract with the seller, Shimizu Property, on an “as-is and with all faults basis” so that the district assumed all risks of environmental conditions at the site. Aggravating matters, Cartwright also allegedly failed to advise the district to consider an insurance policy to cover such risks.
“O’Melveny really has a problem with this case,” one prominent local lawyer said.
He said that the problem is made worse because of the presence of Girardi and Cotchett, who are noted for their ability to champion the little guy over thoughtless corporations.
“That is why O’Melveny has to get the school restarted, to limit their exposure,” he said.
With layers of malpractice insurance worth an aggregate $100 million and legal defense costs estimated at $15 million, O’Melveny faces potential liabilities that theoretically could surpass $200 million.
Opening the school would not make the malpractice case go away but would reduce O’Melveny’s exposure to damages significantly, according to attorney Robert A. Long, a malpractice expert at Latham & Watkins of Los Angeles.
“Their position [that Belmont should be built] has some logic and merit,” Long said. “If it’s finished and used, it seems to me that no one has a valid claim for damages.”
“It’s almost like they have got to do this,” ethics expert Diane Karpman, a former chairman of the State Bar’s ethics committee, said. “They have got to convince the public that Belmont was a good deal.”
And that is exactly what O’Melveny set out to do.
The O’Melveny Offensive
The public relations effort swung into action just after the district served its suit on O’Melveny in September 1999.
“It was all pretty bizarre,” Daily News Managing Editor Ron Kaye, who was among those lobbied, said. “Trying a public issue so nakedly in the court of public opinion—I have never seen anything like it.”
Heading the effort was Shapira, one of the firm’s most respected trial lawyers. He was assigned almost exclusively to the Belmont litigation and lobbying effort in early 1999, shortly after a Los Angeles Times article raised questions about the suitability of the 35-acre former oil field for a school.
Also on the front lines was O’Melveny’s outside counsel at Gibson Dunn. In addition to mounting its courtroom defense, Gibson Dunn hired the network of consultants that presented O’Melveny’s defense in the courtroom of public opinion. Heading the team for Gibson Dunn was noted litigator Bob Cooper, joined by Kevin Rosen, Dan Floyd, Kay Kochenderfer and Pat Dennis.
Before the lawsuit was filed, the firm—through its Gibson Dunn lawyers—brought on board Environ International Group to lay the groundwork for its argument that the site was no more contaminated than 200 similar public-school sites throughout the county. Environ was hired to take more samples at nearby Belmont Senior High School and reinterpret environmental data from the new Belmont site.
To help package the new scientific data, O’Melveny enlisted a top political consultant and a top lobbyist. In November 1999, the law firm hired Joe Cerrell of Cerrell Associates to plot a damage-control strategy and smooth access to the city’s decision makers.
In January 2000, O’Melveny also hired the city’s top lobbyist, Rose & Kindel, for access.
“One of the functions of our lobbyists has been to get me access to political figures so I can educate them about Belmont,” Shapira said.
Together, the team packaged the Environ study for maximum public effect. The three firms devised a slick, computer-generated presentation that didn’t make a blatant appeal for Belmont construction to resume. The suggestion was more subtle.
All we want, Shapira and his consultants argued in public and private meetings, is to complete a series of state-recommended environmental tests begun on the site in 1999. The tests, supervised by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, were halted by the school board’s Jan. 25, 2000, vote suspending construction on Belmont.
The district is obliged to do that much, Shapira said, so everyone will have the facts to make an informed decision about the school’s fate.
By arguing simply that the environmental tests should be completed, O’Melveny was easing open a door that many thought was closed and locked.
“They were creating a situation where the project would be in limbo: Why would you be testing if you didn’t think it could be made safe? They got their foot in the door,” Local 11’s senior researcher David Koff said.
‘Is it Lobbying? I Don’t Know’
First stop for O’Melveny in its effort to change public perception about Belmont was the media, which had proven particularly damaging to the school. Shapira began by courting news reporters and editorial writers, making available the Environ report, school district memos and other public documents the firm obtained during an especially contentious discovery process in the malpractice suit.
An early stop in 2000 was the Daily News, where Shapira was accompanied by Cerrell President Hal Dash. There, Shapira gave the first presentation, a mix of video clips, slides and asides, that made four main points:
- Oil fields are common in Southern California.
- More than 200 schools are located on L.A.-area oil fields. So are public buildings like the Los Angeles Central Library and the George C. Page Museum.
- Naturally occurring methane and hydrogen sulfide are the only environmental hazards at the Belmont site.
- The site can be made safe for a school using existing mitigation technologies.
“If you didn’t know anything about Belmont … it was very convincing,” a Daily News staffer, who asked not to be named, said.
“I visited Ron Kaye and others at the Daily News for one reason only: to explain why I thought they had the facts wrong about Belmont,” Shapira said.
Next stop was the Los Angeles Times editorial board. Because Shapira was worried that the Times wouldn’t see him, prominent O’Melveny partner Gil Ray called Janet Clayton, the editorial page editor, with whom he was acquainted, to set up a meeting.
Clayton’s editorial board had been calling on the LAUSD to dump Belmont and look elsewhere for school sites. She said the meeting with the lawyers made little impression on the paper’s editorial writers.
“Honestly, I cannot even remember what they were pitching except that it was beneficial to them,” Clayton said. “Frankly, we don’t make our decisions based on those things. Sometimes, they bring us information that’s good to consider.”
Gibson Dunn had fired a shot for O’Melveny in the Times editorial pages with an article written by its own heavyweight partner, Robert C. Bonner, a former federal judge, U.S. attorney, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration chief and now a nominee for U.S. Customs Service director. Just a month after the lawsuit was filed, Bonner wrote a piece drawing on the data found in the Environ report. The same data later made its way into O’Melveny’s presentation.
It also made its way into the hands of Times education writer Doug Smith. Shapira supplied documents that Smith relied on in a Nov. 25, 1999, article, “Belmont Hazards Are Not Unique,” which chronicled the presence of oil field-related pollutants under other public schools and the lack of measures taken to mitigate them.
Smith remembers he was researching the story when Dash called him and said O’Melveny was ready to talk.
Smith went to Shapira’s office several blocks away and sat through a well-rehearsed, 90-minute presentation.
“It was something they had prepared and had obviously put a lot of effort into it,’ he said. “When we decided to go ahead with the article, it actually complicated things that O’Melveny started to go ahead with that campaign because it was easy to see what people would think.”
According to Smith, the Times based a map it used in the November story on a graphic provided by Shapira and since has based “two or three” stories on O’Melveny’s information.
The firm also targeted the alternative media, which had been particularly vocal about the problems at Belmont. By the spring of 2000, LA Weekly staff writer Howard Blume had spent nearly five years dissecting LAUSD’s every misstep in the Belmont project, in stories with such headlines as “Belmont Bungling” and “Who Poisoned The Well?”
Within a year, Blume, too, had joined the growing chorus for more environmental testing at the school site, a position taken after many conversations with Shapira about Belmont.
“They haven’t been inaccessible,” Blume said of the firm. “I can include their research as part of my research. Is that lobbying? I don’t know.”
The Political Push
Next up were key public officials, who also received a variation on the same presentation shown to the media. Among the officials were leading state lawmakers, local politicians and Los Angeles’ corporate power brokers.
In the first quarter of 2000, Rose & Kindel began meeting with City Council members to discuss “matters relating to the city of Los Angeles and the LAUSD,” according to City Ethics Commission records.
While Shapira has declined to comment on how much the total public relations effort has cost the firm, commission records indicate that from Jan. 1, 2000, to March 31, 2001, O’Melveny paid Rose & Kindel nearly $143,000 (an average of $9,500 a month) to lobby city officials on Belmont.
During that time, Shapira met with several members of what has been called “possibly the most influential party” in the Belmont debate, the Proposition BB Oversight Committee, the citizens’ group formed to monitor the LAUSD’s spending of school construction bond money.
David Abel, a Proposition BB member, said Shapira’s presentation raised questions about whether Belmont was as dangerous as the media were claiming.
O’Melveny also sought access to the school board to discuss Belmont-related issues.
Dick Sheehan, special counsel to the school board, advised board members not to talk to O’Melveny shortly after the lawsuit was filed, but Shapira protested the foreclosure of access to public officials.
He prevailed in a meeting with Sheehan and Howard Miller, the district’s chief operating officer.
“Mr. Sheehan’s attempt to prevent board members from speaking with us was indefensible, and we told him so,’’ Shapira said.
School board members said they never were targeted directly by the firm but were aware of the intensive lobbying effort going on around them.
“We were all at an event together, and [Rose & Kindel lobbyists] didn’t make any bones about the fact that we were on opposite sides of the issue … and that they had been hired to build support for the issue,” former school board President Genethia Hudley Hayes said.
Current President Caprice Young also ran into Shapira at a meeting of the Central City Association of Los Angeles, a powerful business advocacy group.
“They gave a short presentation about why the school should be built, and we had a long discussion about Belmont,” Young said of the November 2000 meeting.
O’Melveny also capitalized on its connections in Sacramento. In the 2000 session, O’Melveny lobbyists, looking for funds to finish the school, targeted legislators and education committees, including the state allocation board, the main funding body for California public schools.
Lobbying in Sacramento continued into the current session. Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, the former school board member whose district included the Belmont attendance district, said the law firm’s lobbyists offered to help her round up votes this session for a bill that directs the LAUSD to complete environmental testing at Belmont.
Goldberg, D-Highland Park, happily accepted the support, though she takes no position on the malpractice suit.
“I think that anybody who can help people look at this in a rational manner instead of as a political football is my ally,” she said, “but not in all things and at all times.”
O’Melveny’s efforts to influence public opinion came at a time when the school board was in the process of selecting a new superintendent to succeed Interim Superintendent Ramon Cortines, who acceded to a recommendation that the district abandon Belmont.
The Belmont dispute came up repeatedly during the selection process that resulted in former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer being hired. And Romer has proved to be the superintendent of O’Melveny’s dreams, moving immediately after taking office to restart the school.
Throughout the spring of 2000, the school board, through a corporate headhunter, was actively wooing a small pool of candidates that included Houston schools Superintendent Rod Paige and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros.
Romer, a three-term governor of Colorado, was not on any board members’ radar when he began evincing interest in the job while in town on Democratic National Convention business. Romer was the chairman of the committee planning the convention, scheduled for Aug. 14-17, 2000.
Romer was the only candidate who actively lobbied for the job. Hayes, the school board president, was at home nursing her cancer-stricken husband when Romer called in March 2000. She was initially skeptical and described Romer’s attempts to see her as “very assertive.”
“I was the first person who said, ‘Why in the world would we hire Roy Romer?’” Hayes said. “He’s a white guy. He’s from Colorado. No question I was not a fan of Romer’s.”
When Romer came to Hayes to discuss the job, she asked the Democratic National Committee chairman point-blank about the rumors.
“You’re DNC. We understand what [O’Melveny] does for the Democratic Party. I want to know if you are trying to get O’Melveny & Myers off the hook,” she asked Romer.
“He told me ’no,’ and you have to take a person at their word,” she said.
The top personnel at Cerrell Associates also presumed O’Melveny would have a keen interest in the new superintendent. On May 10, 2000, Cerrell and Dash exchanged the following e-mails, according to documents in the malpractice lawsuit.
“Think you should report to Ralph Shapira about your conversation with Roy Romer about Belmont,” Cerrell e-mailed Dash.
Dash replied, “Nope.”
To which Cerrell staffer Howard Sunkin interjected, “I’ll report.” At the time, Cerrell was no longer under contract with O’Melveny.
On May 20, Romer’s name appeared for the first time on the shortlist of five candidates forwarded by a citizens’ selection committee that included Eli Broad, a prominent businessman, Democratic Party booster and O’Melveny’s Century City landlord.
Broad first proposed the superintendent’s post to Romer during a planning meeting for the Democratic National Convention in Broad’s Century City office in early 2000, according to Broad’s spokeswoman, Melissa Ratcliff.
The men did not discuss Belmont during the selection process, she said.
“Mr. Broad supported Gov. Romer because of his passion for education reform and because he had the political skills necessary to calm the waters during a tumultuous time for the LAUSD,” Ratcliff said.
Romer got the job in June 2000 after candidates with stronger education backgrounds dropped out or were passed over by the selection committee. School board member David Tokofsky and other critics complained at the time that the selection process was “fixed” for Romer.
Dash and Romer did not respond to several requests for comment for this story, and Cerrell said he had been instructed not to speak publicly about his former client.
In a July 6, 2000, Daily News report, Dash said he and Romer met by chance at a Democratic National Convention-related function, and Romer asked the consultant his opinion about the school.
“I said, as an outside observer, I felt it could be salvaged for a lot less money than the $6 million in remediation being quoted,” Dash said. “It had nothing to do with O’Melveny.”
Shapira denied that Dash had approached Romer at the firm’s behest, but Shapira said he did learn of their conversation. He said that the firm provided packets of information about Belmont to many public officials, but he didn’t believe Romer was one of them.
“We were pleased that Superintendent Romer concluded that the Belmont Learning Complex should be completed,” Shapira said, “but we had absolutely nothing to do with influencing him in that direction.”
Taking It to the Streets
The third prong of the O’Melveny offensive involved reaching out to community organizations—particularly those representing minority interests—to bolster their cause.
“O’Melveny understood that it had to take this fight to the streets. Unless it effectively marshaled minority support to build the school, there would be widespread opposition to a quintessentially white law firm telling black and brown schoolchildren to go to a school they wouldn’t send their own kids to,” a lawyer with close ties to community organizations said.
In July 2000, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a lawsuit asking a court to force the school district to resume environmental testing at Belmont.
MALDEF, a civil rights group, had long-established ties to O’Melveny, which represented the organization pro bono in a court challenge to Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot measure that denied social services to immigrants. The measure later was overturned, with O’Melveny acting as counsel.
According to MALDEF attorney Tom Saenz, O’Melveny was not directly involved in filing or litigating the Belmont lawsuit.
“I can tell you that they have been helpful in providing information to us,” Saenz said.
During the same period, Rose & Kindel representatives and Shapira met with citizens’ groups that supported completion of the long-promised school, hoping to channel their anger at public officials who voted to halt construction into a public groundswell for Belmont.
“[O’Melveny] did a great job of grass-roots organizing,” Tokofsky, who has opposed the project since its inception, said.
Shapira provided the groups, including the Central American Resource Center and the Alliance for Better Communities, with historical and environmental data they could use to press their case with elected officials.
The groups did not respond to several Daily Journal requests for comment. But one pro-Belmont observer said the law firm helped boost the groups’ visibility with public officials.
“Without O’Melveny & Myers’ contacts and influence, the cause of that [Belmont area] community would have been lost forever,” said Proposition BB’s Abel, who leads New Schools, Better Neighborhoods, a nonprofit advocacy group for inner-city schools.
The Revival of Belmont
Even before taking control of LAUSD on July 1, 2000, Romer was talking about a plan to revive the Belmont project. And in public and private offices around the city during spring and summer of 2000, the O’Melveny public relations blitz was starting to take hold.
In March 2000, Councilman Mike Hernandez came to the rescue of Belmont, bringing a resolution before the City Council to bottle up permits for any new-school construction unless the school board reconsidered its vote to kill Belmont.
That was not Hernandez’s first involvement with Belmont. In 1993, O’Melveny was negotiating the purchase of the site from Shimizu, in what Cartwright termed an “exceedingly difficult deal,” in a May 27, 1994, memo written to Richard Mason, an in-house lawyer for the district. Cartwright said the firm had been required to deal with “sensitive political (i.e., Hernandez, Polanco, SAC) and community relations problems.” Hernandez, among others, initially had opposed the deal.
However, in the letter which is part of the court file, Cartwright wrote, “When political and community issues such as housing began to take on ominous proportions, my negotiations with Shimizu yielded … a Shimizu contribution to Councilman Hernandez Boys’ Club project.
“You may recall that these concessions were obtained for the District on my initiative from a rather nervous seller,” Cartwright wrote.
Hernandez said he was unaware the firm had arranged a donation to the Echo Park club, though he had heard of Cartwright’s claims.
What caused him to reconsider his original opposition to Belmont, he said, were the plans for retail and housing components on the site.
“When I saw the school would be much more than a school for the community, then I became a supporter,” he said.
Shimizu made a second donation, shortly after the sale was closed in March 1994, of $150,000 to the LAUSD to study the addition of low-income housing within the school complex. Hernandez and county Supervisor Gloria Molina had expressed concern about the lack of low-income housing around the Belmont site.
A spokesman for Molina said the donation to the school district had nothing to do with her continuing support of Belmont.
Hernandez came through for Belmont in 2000, as well, with his plan to hold up school permits. On March 3, the council passed a weakened version of his proposal, 12-1, simply asking the school board to reconsider completing environmental testing at Belmont.
The lone dissenter at that meeting was Councilman Joel Wachs, who remarked on O’Melveny’s hard-sell tactics.
“When I get bombarded by calls from one of the highest-paid lobbyists and they refuse to tell me who is paying them, that sends up flags,” Wachs said during the meeting. “And when we find out who is behind it, it begins to make sense.”
Rose & Kindel, Shapira said, had “been forthright with everyone that they were working for O’Melveny concerning Belmont.”
Although Hernandez had seen the Environ presentation before he made his City Council proposal in March 2000, his meetings with Shapira and Cerrell lobbyist Howard Sunkin did not influence his decision, he said.
Hernandez also saw Shapira deliver the presentation “several times” at community meetings, including a session with parents at the Belmont Senior High School cafeteria and a gathering at MALDEF headquarters.
“It was a very public document,” Hernandez said.
“We understand that O’Melveny & Myers had their reasons for doing this, but at the same time, it was information that we believed in,” he said. “They were part of building a coalition that was already being built. They lent technical expertise.”
Still, detractors remained, including the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times. Following the City Council vote, the Times advised the council to “butt out” and wondered, “What is this fight really about? … Is it about scratching the backs of well-connected lobbyists and the powerful lawyers at O’Melveny & Myers, which is being sued by the school district for its advisory role in the Belmont deal?”
The newspaper’s anti-Belmont stance would change less than a year later as the paper’s new owners and editors looked again at Belmont and noted the mounting public concerns about the shell of a school.
In a Dec. 11, 2000, editorial titled “Getting Past Belmont,” the newspaper endorsed Romer’s plan to ask private contractors to complete the school.
The change of heart followed two events, according to Clayton. One was a meeting between the Times’ new editor, John Carroll, and Romer, in which the school was discussed. The second was a meeting between the paper’s new management and the editorial board.
“We meant it to be noticed,” Clayton said of the switch. “We never tried to run away from our original position. We were just sitting here saying, ‘… We’ve got to re-evaluate this thing based on current fact.’”
By April 2000, O’Melveny’s fortunes had begun to shift. The district attorney, the city attorney and the state attorney general ended their investigations into alleged conflicts of interest, fraud and environmental cover-ups at Belmont without filing any charges.
The same month, the Proposition BB Oversight Committee considered a proposal to use school construction bond money to fund a safety study at Belmont. And at an April school board meeting, Molina, who co-chaired the Democratic National Convention Committee with Romer, offered $1 million from her office’s discretionary fund to pay for the study.
On June 28, 2000, the Proposition BB committee voted unanimously to refuse to release funding for new construction for Belmont replacement campuses until the school board reconsidered finishing environmental testing at the site.
“All we were asking for was not to open Belmont but to complete the study,” David Abel, a committee member, said recently.
And, in December 2000—a month after hearing Shapira’s presentation—the Central City Association voted to support continued testing at the Belmont site.
All those actions merely laid the groundwork for the dramatic change that took place once Romer took office. Even before his official start date, Romer began talking about reviving Belmont, despite the objections of his new bosses on the school board. He floated the possibility of turning the ground floor of the complex into an open-air parking garage to allow methane and hydrogen sulfide to escape rather than being trapped inside.
“This idea is not a crazy idea,” Romer told the Daily News in a June 30, 2000, article. “There [would be] no problem with gases getting into the building because they’re dispersed through the flow of air into the garage.”
During the first month of his tenure, Romer advocated spending $800,000 to complete the Belmont environmental study. He also proposed stripping LAUSD Inspector General Don Mullinax of his authority both to initiate investigations into school district fraud and to keep his reports confidential. Mullinax’s scathing 1999 audit report had recommended that the district sue O’Melveny for malpractice.
Romer’s proposals were not enacted.
On July 19, 2000, Romer appeared on NBC’s “Today” program and told interviewer Matt Lauer, “I think some of [Belmont] can be salvaged. We need to complete an environmental study.”
Five months later, Romer was interviewed on the popular radio program “Which Way L.A.?” on KCRW-FM. He revealed a previously unannounced plan to seek proposals to revive the school.
School board members, who considered Belmont a dead issue, were enraged.
“The board has repeatedly said to top management, ‘Sell the property.’ What part of ’sell’ doesn’t Roy Romer understand?” Tokofsky fumed in a Dec. 6, 2000, article in the Daily News, which has continued to lead the media opposition to Belmont.
At the same time, the school board no longer could ignore mounting public pressure to revisit the possibility of restarting the school.
“[We] should have given Girardi [the school district’s counsel in the malpractice suit] the ability to counteract that information campaign. I think we have been sitting ducks on that issue,” Tokofsky said.
In a closed session in December, Romer asked the board for a vote of confidence for his proposal to seek bids from private contractors to clean up and finish Belmont either to sell or to use as a school.
The board confirmed that closed-session decision with a 4-3 vote on Jan. 23, 2001, nearly a year to the date after the same members’ decision to scrap the school.
And on April 14, 2001—15 months after voting to shutter Belmont—the school district, at Romer’s behest, issued a request for proposals to complete the school.
The proposals are due Sept. 24.
Not Yet Out of the Woods
Despite the school board vote, O’Melveny faces several significant hurdles.
The malpractice lawsuit is pending and headed for trial in 2002. The parties have been ordered into mediation.
Even if construction were to start before the trial, the school district’s attorneys said they would continue pursuing the case aggressively.
“Whether it goes forward or not, there are still grievous errors that are still going to cost a lot of money to fix,” Cotchett attorney Steven Williams said.
The newly elected district attorney, Steve Cooley, has revived the criminal investigation into alleged fraud, environmental crimes and conflict of interest during the planning and construction of Belmont. Rumors persist of extensive meetings about Belmont in the district attorney’s office and of a grand jury investigation that will begin this summer or early fall. However, whether O’Melveny is a target is not clear.
Privately and publicly, O’Melveny has become significantly more optimistic about the outcome of the dispute.
“We expect to win the lawsuit … whether or not the district finally decides to finish building the school,” Shapira said.
Perhaps bolstering his confidence is a June 8, 2001, arbitrator’s ruling in the first Belmont-related case to be decided. The school district was ordered to pay Belmont’s developer and contractor, Kajima, and others who worked on the project $17 million in disputed bills. Representing the school board in that hearing were Girardi and Cotchett, the same legal team that is handling the malpractice claim. The firms took over in the middle of the arbitration. The school board is considering whether to appeal the decision.
If Belmont is completed, the malpractice case against the firm will not go away. However, it could reduce significantly O’Melveny’s exposure to damages.
“If the school goes forward and it’s a huge success,” Karpman said, “then what are the damages?”
Shapira said O’Melveny has tried to restart Belmont only because it is interested in what is best for the children of Los Angeles.
“The stories about Belmont’s safety bothered many of us the most because they were clearly at odds with the facts and they delayed beyond all reason completion of a school that is desperately needed,” Shapira said recently. “That’s why we made such a determined effort to get the facts out, to anyone who would listen.”
“The school district’s attorneys viewed the firm’s activities as a cynical manipulation of the malpractice case.
“I don’t think [O’Melveny’s] interests are the interests of the school children,” said Cochett attorney Williams. “Their interests are the interests of O’Melveny & Myers,” Williams said.
“O’Melveny is not out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination,” one observer said. “However, their campaign has brought them a long way back. It would be a horrible irony if one of the most civic-minded law firms in our city successfully resurrected itself at the expense of the children of this city.”
But Shapira discounts the idea that shifting public sentiment will have any impact on the court case.
“We expect to win the case because of the facts, not public sentiment,” he said.
There are those who are immune to changes in public opinion and persist in believing that completing Belmont would be a bad business decision that would put the health of its poor and mostly minority students at risk.
Craig Perkins, a member of a citizen’s commission put together in late 1999 to evaluate the school project, had voted at that time against further construction or testing at Belmont.
Perkins, director of environmental and public works management for the city of Santa Monica, said he’d make the same recommendation again.
“There are so many self-interested agendas it is unbelievable,” he said. “What was tragically lost from the beginning is what is best for the children.”
For the Record—In an article published in the Los Angeles Daily Journal on July 30, 2001 about OMelveny & Myers, the Daily Journal misstated attorney Diane Karpmans previous role as an ethics expert. Karpman is immediate past chair of the Los Angeles County Bar Associations ethics committee. The article also stated that, in a lawsuit challenging Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot measure that denied social services to immigrants, OMelveny acted as counsel to the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The article failed to make clear that OMelveny and MALDEF acted as co-counsel in that lawsuit.