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St. John Takes 5th Amendment 60 Times

October 11, 1989|JANE FRITSCH and RICH CONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Juanita St. John, the embattled head of the city's African trade task force, invoked the Fifth Amendment more than 60 times Tuesday, refusing to answer any questions asked by a City Council committee investigating the group's spending of public funds.

"On the advice of counsel, I respectfully assert my Fifth Amendment right," St. John said after Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky asked her what position she held with the task force.

Grim-faced, St. John stared at Yaroslavsky across a table in the council chambers as he peppered her with a long string of questions about her personal finances and those of the task force.

Yaroslavsky also confronted her with new information showing that Mayor Tom Bradley had recommended five merit pay raises for St. John since the city began funding the group four years ago.

Her lawyer, Richard Hirsch, sat at her side and, after the first question, responded for her as she asserted her constitutional right against self-incrimination.

"You were running a rogue organization, as far as I'm concerned," Yaroslavsky said when he ran out of questions. "At some point, you've got to tell the people of the city why city money ended up in your (personal) account. . . . You have never accounted for them (the funds)," Yaroslavsky said.

St. John, a friend and business associate of Bradley, is the subject of a number of investigations for her handling of about $400,000 in city funds that the mayor helped secure for the task force beginning in 1985. St. John owes the city more than $260,000 and has failed to account for nearly $180,000 in personal withdrawals from task force accounts, according to a city audit.

She has a long history of personal financial problems, including two bankruptcies.

St. John had refused to come before the committee voluntarily to explain how she spent the task force money and appeared Tuesday only after being served with a subpoena.

Yaroslavsky said after the session that the committee may call Bradley to testify because he was on the task force's executive committee and had some responsibility for task force finances, including St. John's salary.

Yaroslavsky, who has led the council investigation of the task force, disclosed Tuesday during the questioning that he had obtained information from UCLA showing that Bradley personally arranged for St. John to receive five merit pay increases as executive director of the task force, which was operated through UCLA.

St. John's pay jumped from $37,688 in 1985 to $45,444 last June, when she got her final raise, according to information supplied by UCLA.

In response to written questions from Yaroslavsky, Vice Chancellor Elwin V. Svenson submitted a letter saying, "Mayor Bradley made merit increase recommendations on behalf of the task force which were implemented by UCLA."

The new information indicated that the mayor had a more active role in the task force finances than was previously disclosed.

Bill Chandler, the mayor's spokesman, said the mayor had no comment on the disclosure.

In August, Bradley said in a sworn interview with city auditors that he did not know what St. John was paid. "I don't know what her latest salary was," he said. "She had worked for some time without cost-of-living adjustments."

After the session Tuesday, Yaroslavsky told reporters, "I think this is just another indication of the closeness between the task force for Africa and the mayor's office."

The committee voted unanimously to recommend that the city attorney's office file a civil suit to recover the unaccounted-for money and, frustrated by St. John's lack of cooperation, decided to call four members of the task force's executive committee to answer questions.

'With Both Barrels'

"We're going after it with both barrels," Yaroslavsky said. "We're going after anybody with any responsibility" for task force funds.

In another development Tuesday, a deputy state attorney general said he will seek approval to sue the task force and compel St. John to file state-required statements on the financial activities of the group.

"I'm starting to get dissatisfied. . . . Things are getting more delayed than I think are justified," said Deputy Atty. Gen. James Cordi. For months, state officials have been demanding that the nonprofit task force document hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenditures and disclose the names of its corporate directors.

The task force and other tax-exempt groups must file annual reports disclosing their income, expenses, officers and liabilities, among other things.

St. John has not filed task force reports with the state since 1985.

Board Is Responsible

The group's board of directors is legally responsible for overseeing how task force funds are handled, but Cordi said, "I'm not clear on who the directors were."

After granting St. John and her lawyers a series of time extensions to submit the reports, Cordi said he is growing impatient and now will seek approval to obtain a court order compelling St. John to file the reports.

Cordi also said he may seek a judgment against the task force, and possibly St. John, to recover the state's investigative and legal costs, which could amount to several thousand dollars.

St. John's lawyers have said they are working with an accountant to prepare the reports.

The task force received the money from the general city purposes fund, which has come under criticism in recent months for lax financial controls. On Tuesday, the City Council voted unanimously for a package of reforms giving city departments better oversight over city-funded programs such as the Africa task force.

BACKGROUND

Juanita St. John, a friend and business associate of Mayor Tom Bradley, is the subject of a number of investigations for her handling of $400,000 in city funds given to the African trade task force she headed. She owes the city more than $260,000 and has failed to account for nearly $180,000 in personal withdrawals from task force accounts.

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