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Suit targets charter school deal

Former teacher accuses officials of improperly using state construction funds. Defendants say the action is politically motivated.

February 24, 2007|Joel Rubin and Evelyn Larrubia | Times Staff Writers

Seven years ago, the Los Angeles Unified School District joined with a charter school to build a sparkling new campus in South Los Angeles. The deal, using public funds and private donations, was hailed as an ideal partnership.

But that transaction is coming under scrutiny. Several individuals from the Accelerated School and the school district were named in a lawsuit this week alleging improper use of state school construction funds.

Among those named in the suit is Accelerated's co-director, Johnathan Williams, who is running for a seat on the district's seven-member school board.

Neither Williams nor his campaign staff had seen the lawsuit, but campaign consultant Ace Smith called the litigation "a shameless political attempt to try to denigrate the fantastic work that's been done by the Accelerated School in South Los Angeles."

Williams could not be reached for comment. But Kevin Sved, who directs and founded the school with Williams, defended the deal to build the school. He had not read the lawsuit, but said lawyers for the school and district had carefully vetted the project at the time.

"The result," Sved said, is a school "providing free, quality education in an underserved section of Los Angeles."

The lawsuit was filed by Dennis Dockstader in Los Angeles Superior Court last summer but kept under seal until late last week. Dockstader, a whistleblower and former teacher, has made at least two similar, unsuccessful allegations against the school district, according to Michelle Meghrouni, a senior district lawyer.

Dockstader brushed aside allegations that the suit was politically motivated, noting that it was originally filed months before Williams declared his intention to seek office.

Dockstader would not further discuss the suit -- or the other false claims actions he has filed previously.

False-claim suits seek the return of government funds from a person or entity that improperly used or obtained them. If successful, Dockstader and his legal team would be entitled to 25% to 50% of the recouped money, said attorney Mark Allen Kleiman, a false-claims specialist not involved in this case.

Such suits are filed under seal until the attorney general decides whether to dismiss, participate in or stand aside during the litigation. In this case, state prosecutors chose to let the suit proceed without their active involvement.

The lawsuit alleges that the land and construction contract violated numerous state rules and bidding requirements and seeks the return of all state money applied to the project, estimated in court documents at more than $12.5 million. Dockstader charges in the suit that, among other things, the school project was designed to bilk the state out of $2.8 million it paid the district to help defray the costs of the campus land.

According to the lawsuit and Los Angeles Unified documents, the district and Accelerated pursued and then abandoned the idea of Accelerated donating the land to the district. (The land had originally been given to Accelerated by the previous owner.) The district instead bought the nearly four-acre site at South Main Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The move qualified the district for the additional state funds, which were used to help build the modern campus. The suit argues that the state was defrauded of money for which the school district and Accelerated had no legitimate claim.

Williams was not named in the original complaint, which targeted only L.A. Unified, the Accelerated School and the Cal State Los Angeles Foundation, which held the title to Accelerated's land. But a recent state Supreme Court ruling barred litigation against government agencies, so attorneys working with Dockstader amended the list of defendants this week to drop L.A. Unified and add specific individuals, including Williams, his partner Sved and Jim McConnell, the former head of construction for L.A. Unified. McConnell declined to comment on the lawsuit.

When the construction collaboration was conceived, L.A. Unified desperately needed to relieve overcrowding and was eligible for millions in state school construction funds. Accelerated, for its part, had a ready plan for a new, larger campus, but was short on capital.

Ultimately, the project cost more than $50 million, said Eric Johnson, the president of Accelerated's board of trustees. He estimated that about $21 million came from state and district funds and $18.6 million from Accelerated's own fundraising. In addition, L.A. Unified lent $9.9 million to Accelerated, and the nearly $6 million paid for the land deal was also used to build the new campus.

Johnson said it was clear practically from the start that the best idea was to sell the district the land, then pump that money back into the project.

"Someone may have suggested that the land be donated, but clearly that's not the smart way to do it," he said.

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