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Occidental Trustees Told Gift Tied to L.A. School Board Bid

But Eli Broad aide says timing of $10-million offer and his push of campus president to run against David Tokofsky was a coincidence.

November 01, 2002|Peter Y. Hong and Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad offered to donate $10 million to Occidental College while seeking to persuade the school's president to run against L.A. school board trustee David Tokofsky, The Times has learned.

College President Theodore R. Mitchell confirmed in an interview late Thursday that he had been in discussions over the past week with Broad and former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan about seeking the seat on the seven-member board of the Los Angeles Unified School District but decided against running in the spring election.

Mitchell told college trustees Wednesday that Broad would give the money to the Eagle Rock institution if he would declare his candidacy, according to participants in that discussion.

Mitchell asked trustees for their approval to remain campus president if he won the seat, said the participants who requested not to be identified, but trustees disapproved of the idea.

Mitchell said he would not divulge what he discussed with the Occidental trustees. The former UCLA vice chancellor and Getty Trust executive said he had talked with Broad about helping to finance an education leadership institute at Occidental, but added that it was unrelated to his potential candidacy.

Broad's spokeswoman, Melissa Bonney Ratcliff, said that Broad had been considering a gift to Occidental at the same time he was encouraging Mitchell to run for Tokofsky's seat but that the timing was coincidental and was not linked to Mitchell's candidacy. Ratcliff said Broad was not available for comment Thursday.

Mitchell said he was impatient with the pace of reform in L.A. Unified, the nation's second-largest school district. But after talking with several people about Tokofsky's re-election chances and about his own odds, Mitchell said, he decided not to run.

"What I discovered was that David has broad and deep community support," he said.

Mitchell, a former education advisor to Riordan, told about a dozen college trustees in a special meeting on the issue how Broad and Riordan asked him to run and how Broad offered the college the donation, according to sources at the gathering. Mitchell, in New York, spoke to the trustees, who assembled at the college, by speaker phone.

When asking the board for permission to run, Mitchell told the trustees he was not initially interested but was persuaded to run by Broad's offer to donate $10 million to the 1,600-student liberal arts college, according to sources who attended. The donation would have been used to fund a leadership institute for public school principals and vice principals, said participants, and was to be given over five years, in $2 million increments.

Several board members told Mitchell, who became president in 1999, not to accept the request to run for the board, and by the end of the meeting Mitchell agreed, participants said.

Riordan, a close friend of Broad, denied that he asked Mitchell to join the school board race but said that he would have been an enthusiastic backer. "I wasn't the one that went to him or was involved in any decision," the former mayor said. "It did not come from me, but when he made a decision to look at it, I thought it was a good idea."

At one point in the interview Thursday with The Times, Riordan said he had "an idea about who asked [Mitchell], but I don't want to reveal any confidences."

For several years Riordan has sought to influence the composition of the school board. With financial help from Broad, he backed four successful candidates -- including Tokofsky -- in the 1999 board elections. But Tokofsky, the only incumbent on the mayor's slate, was not Riordan's first choice. Riordan initially recruited a candidate to oppose the incumbent, but endorsed Tokofsky after that person dropped out.

Even without Tokofsky fully aboard, the Riordan-backed candidates changed the course of the district, leading to the dismissal of then-Supt. Ruben Zacarias and the decision, now being reconsidered, to scrap the Belmont Learning Complex over environmental problems.

Tokofsky called the courting of Mitchell "another Byzantine turn in the treacherous school district." The board member said Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh (D-Los Angeles) told him Wednesday that Mitchell had been considering a run for his seat. Tokofsky then called Mitchell, who was in New York on a business trip.

"Ted, what's going on here?" Tokofsky recalled asking. He said Mitchell acknowledged that he had planned a run for the seat, but said he changed his mind. Tokofsky also said Mitchell apologized.

The board member said he was concerned about Broad possibly influencing the upcoming election. "I've seen enough races to know that a million here and a million there can make for a rough board race," Tokofsky said, "and your record can't always find its way through that much money."

He said he confronted Broad on Thursday at the California Club. Broad told him that he had nothing to worry about because Mitchell had decided not to run, Tokofsky said, and that they would talk at another time.

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