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Lawsuit Targets Firms Linked to Belmont Debacle

Education: The $50-million suit alleges that bungling left an estimated 10,000 students without a community high school.

September 14, 2002|SOLOMON MOORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A $50-million lawsuit was filed this week on behalf of youngsters who would have attended the unfinished Belmont Learning Complex but still ride buses long distances to overcrowded high schools.

The suit is against, among others, firms that designed Belmont or started construction on it.

It alleges that they bungled the handling of environmental problems and have left an estimated 10,000 students without a new neighborhood school since 1999, the original completion date.

An audit by the Los Angeles Unified School District inspector general that year determined that several companies had failed to notify the district of environmental dangers at the site, including underground methane and hydrogen sulfide gases.

"The whole point of this lawsuit is to hold accountable those who made it impossible to open Belmont on time," said Roger Carrick, the attorney who filed the suit. "We are seeking restitution for what these children lost by not being able to go to this school."

The school district in March decided to complete the half-built high school near downtown that it abandoned two years ago because of fears of the pollution.

It is preparing plans for environmental mitigation.

Carrick said he felt compelled to file the lawsuit because Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley had not completed an investigation about Belmont.

"It's extraordinary that you can have more than $180 million of public money put into this project and have nothing to show for it and no prosecutions," said Carrick, a private attorney who worked on the 1999 inspector general audit and as a special counsel to the city attorney's office.

Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office, said her agency would publish a lengthy report on the Belmont debacle in the future, but she declined to comment now on any aspect of the project.

Officials at McLarand, Vasquez & Partners Inc., an architecture firm named in the suit, declined to discuss the matter.

Executives at other companies named in the lawsuit--including the O'Melveny & Myers law firm, Temple Beaudry Partners liability company and Kajima Engineering and Construction--either did not return calls or could not be reached for comment Friday.

The school district is not a defendant in the lawsuit. Carrick said the district had been omitted because any money won from the school district, "you would be taking out of kids' pockets."

In a September 1999 audit, Inspector General Don Mullinax recommended that the district pursue legal action against a series of firms that worked on Belmont because they had failed to notify district officials about underground toxins at the 34-acre site.

The district referred its findings to several law enforcement agencies, including the district attorney's office.

During his successful campaign for the district attorney's office, Steve Cooley criticized then-incumbent Gil Garcetti for failing to prosecute any of the companies or individuals involved in the Belmont scandal.

Fernando Contreras and two of his children are among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. He said that students deserved compensation for suffering through hourlong bus rides to crowded schools.

The district used eminent domain to condemn Contreras' house, he said, for the Belmont construction, and the family moved nearby, hoping to enroll children at the new school.

"If this school was going to offer everything they claimed it was going to offer, I was going to give my kids the opportunity go there," Contreras said. "We deserved that school. We've lived there all our lives."

After construction stalled in 1999, Contreras moved to La Puente, where his children attend school.

In January, the school district lost a Superior Court lawsuit that accused the O'Melveny & Myers law firm of malpractice in its advice to the district about Belmont.

In April, the firm agreed to pay the district $3 million, and the district agreed not to appeal the court decision.

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