LAUSD Assigns New Law Firm to Miramonte Child Abuse Cases
LAUSD had initially hired the Sedgwick Law Firm, with chief attorney Thomas Delaney at the onset of the Miramonte scandal.
By John Cadiz Klemack, KNBC News | NBC Southern California | http://bit.ly/1mhFN6L
Wednesday, Apr 30, 2014 | Updated 9:07 AM PDT :: In a move that has attorneys for the victims of the Miramonte child abuse case scratching their heads, the Los Angeles Unified School District has added a new set of attorneys to the case, which is set for trial in July.
LAUSD had initially hired the Sedgwick Law Firm, with chief attorney Thomas Delaney at the onset of the Miramonte scandal. Speaking with only NBC4 in February, LAUSD General Counsel David Holmquist insisted the decision was a strategic one for the district because of Sedgwick's ability to handle high-profile cases. Under Delaney, seven additional attorneys were helping with the case. The addition of the new firm adds at least two more.
In a filing with the California Superior Court, Sedgwick associated the law firm of Andrade and Gonzalez. Sean Andrade, partner in the firm, had been handling the District's insurance policies with the cases.
Until April 21st, as NBC4 reported, Andrade had been the lead attorney defending LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy and former Miramonte principals Richard Lopez and Martin Sandoval. During the hearing on April 21, Luis Carrillo, one of eight attorneys representing the dozens of Miramonte victims, objected in open court to Andrade's appearance as the district "double-dipping" taxpayers. Judge John Wiley questioned Andrade about his presence and reconfirmed that Deasy, Lopez and Sandoval had been removed from the list of defendants. Andrade remained for the morning session but did not return in the afternoon.
NBC4 has made repeated attempts to find out from LAUSD if attorney Andrade was still paid for his time in court that day, even after the judge deemed him solely a "member of the public." To date, the district has not answered that question.
Carrillo sent a statement to NBC4 regarding this new association with Andrade and repeated his claims of wasted tax payer money.
"The LAUSD repeatedly tells the community that the LAUSD is working for the best interests of the children in the school district," Carrillo said, "but instead of spending money for books or in the classrooms, the LAUSD is now paying double for two law firms to defend the LAUSD in the Miramonte cases."
In a previous report, NBC4 obtained the billing charges for the lawfirms representing LAUSD in the Miramonte matter. The hourly rates proved to be double those of attorneys already on the District's defense panel - including attorneys who already had previous winning records with child abuse cases for the District.
We reached out again for comment from the public relations firm hired solely to handle media inquiries in regards to the Miramonte case, but we have yet to get any official statement
LAUSD Admits It Destroyed Documents Regarding Child Sex Abuse; New Revelations of Abuse by Teacher Berndt
Ex-teacher Mark Berndt was convicted of 23 counts of lewd acts with children in November 2013.
By John Cádiz Klemack, KNBC | | NBC Southern California http://bit.ly/1mhHilq
Thursday, May 1, 2014 | Updated 6:14 AM PDT :: After nearly a week with no response to our inquiries about allegations the Los Angeles Unified School District destroyed documents that may have held key evidence in child abuse cases within the district, a spokesman admits the documents no longer exist.
In an interview with KPCC, Sean Rossall of Cerrell Associates, the public relations representative hired by one of the law firms representing the district to exclusively handle media inquiries about the Miramonte child abuse scandal, says the documents were destroyed sometime in 2008. *
Attorneys for the victims of the Miramonte case have based much of their attention on claims LAUSD had known about prior sexual abuse claims against Mark Berndt. This revelation, first reported by NBC4 last week now has attorneys calling foul on the district for destroying what they believe was key evidence to their case.
This is devastating," said victims' attorney Brian Claypool, who is calling on the United States Department of Justice to begin a federal criminal investigation into LAUSD. "It's been our goal from day one to prove a pattern and practice of LAUSD harboring child predators. Their intentional destruction of crucial child abuse reports from 15 years demonstrates a patent cover up."
Rossall tells KPCC "we felt we didn't have a right to have them," regarding the destroyed documents, claiming all the documents were destroyed in 2008 when District lawyers believed a section of the California Penal Code meant they "shouldn't have had them in the first place."
KPCC says the penal code Rossall cites only refers to disclosure, not possession, of confidential child abuse reports. Rossall called the reports "law enforcement records the district was not in charge of."
Attorney John Manly, one of eight attorneys representing Miramonte victims calls Rossall's statements "transparently ridiculous."
This new admission on the part of the District comes on the heels of a new order by the judge handling the Miramonte civil cases.
Superior Court Judge John Wiley, Jr. issued a ruling Tuesday that will open the door to unredacted information gathered by Los Angeles County Sheriff Investigators during its two year investigation of teacher Mark Berndt.
Berndt was convicted of 23 counts of lewd acts with children in November 2013, after evidence showed he spoon-fed students his own semen. But new details released by Wiley show much more details once withheld from the public.
"The main purpose of this ruling," writes Wiley, "is to protect children." Judge Wiley summarized some 512-pages of investigation reports from the LASD that included six DVDs containing 600 photos of students taken by Berndt.
Wiley wrote that Berndt "touched students in many ways, ranging from highly assaulting touching of vaginas and female breasts to other contacts with less obviously abusive implications."
The summary continues that "Berndt exposed his genitalia to students and others, by sitting in short shorts without underwear and spreading his legs in front of students," and that Berndt would induce children to touch his penis, arms, legs or chest.
Wiley says he looked at the redacted version of the investigation as well as the unredacted version and relayed a story of one victim who was interviewed by investigators who did not know she was a victim. The judge explained that she did not believe she had eaten any of the semen-laced cookies, but when presented with the photo evidence, she was instantly filled with shock and surprise and began to cry saying, "That's me! That's me. Oh no! Oh no!"
Questions regarding privacy have arisen in these documents as well, the judge saying those who were interviewed by deputies and are not part of any litigation have a higher value of constitutional privacy. Wiley's summary states that some 130 people named in the report will be given an opportunity to keep their identities hidden.
"We appreciate Judge Wiley's time and thoughtful response," Rossall said in a statement. "We are confident in his ability to work with counsel to ensure that confidential information, including the names of children and potential victims, remains private and protected. And, at the same time, ensure that the parties receive the information needed to prepare for trial."
LAUSD attorney Tom Delaney argued the Court should not release the judge's ruling, claiming that the release of the judge's summary would "taint the jury pool" for the trial. The judge denied the request.
Luis Carrillo, another attorney for some of the Miramonte victims, called the move a step forward for the public. "The judge has given the community the true story of how LAUSD failed miserably to protect the children," Carillo said. "That is why the attorneys for the LAUSD did not want the judge to release his ruling."
As the civil case moves closer to a July trial, victims' attorney John Manly says LAUSD is attempting to hide important information from tax payers.
"The District's attempt to hide this order from the public reflects a deep concern at the highest levels of the District," Manly said. "That the public may learn the truth about Mark Berndt and destroy the fictional story LAUSD created to deceive the public about what they knew and when they knew it."
LA Unified has already paid out nearly $40 million in settlements of 63 child abuse cases involving Berndt and teacher Martin Springer (Springer's criminal charges were dropped last year). The current case involves another 71 children with the first trial set for July 8th.
Karen Foshay with Paul Glickman | 89.3 KPCC http://bit.ly/PTUNsa
Flor Cervantes/AP | Ex-Miramonte teacher Mark Berndt in 2003.
April 30th, 2014, 4:17pm :: Former Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt’s alleged sexual abuse went beyond what has been previously disclosed, and included "highly assaulting" touching of girls’ genitalia, inducing children to touch his genitalia, and exposing his genitalia to students, according to a judge’s summary of an L.A. Sheriff’s Department investigation.
The summary, included in a ruling by Superior Court Judge John Wiley Jr. also noted "a suggestion in the police report that Berndt watched videos of bondage of women, and that his taping of children was for Berndt some version of sexualized bondage."
Wiley’s summary of the Sheriff’s 512-page investigation into the Berndt case was included in his tentative ruling regarding redactions in the report, which is part of the evidence in a civil lawsuit against the L.A. Unified School District.
"Secret courts and secret decisions have never been the American way," Wiley said in court Wednesday.
Additionally, LA Unified spokesman Sean Rossall* confirmed to KPCC that the school district destroyed records containing allegations of sexual abuse at L.A. public schools dating back to 1988. Earlier this month, plaintiff’s attorney John Manly alleged in court that the District had destroyed documents, accusing L.A. Unified of trying to orchestrate a "secret trial."
Plaintiff's lawyers have suggested that the destruction of the records makes it difficult to determine whether there were other reports of Berndt allegedly abusing children during his more than 30-year career.
While Manly could not talk about specifics in the case he did say, "I don’t think there’s any question that we don’t have the whole picture."
Berndt pleaded no contest last November to 23 charges of lewd conduct upon a child, and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. He was accused in that case of feeding semen-laced cookies to children and of taking pictures of them, sometimes with tape over their eyes and mouths, sometimes with Madagascar cockroaches on their bodies.
Separately, one former student had alleged that Berndt had fondled her in 1993, but her case was dropped for insufficient evidence.
In his summary of the Sheriff’s report, Judge Wiley wrote that "Berndt touched students in many ways, ranging from highly assaulting touching of vaginas and female breasts to other contacts with less obviously abusive implications."
Berndt also "induced children to touch his penis, or his arms, or legs, or chest," Wiley wrote.
The judge said that Berndt did not photograph the abuse that involved genital touching.
After the initial scandal broke and Berndt was arrested in 2012, two former students said they had reported that Berndt appeared to touch himself inappropriately in class, and another former student said Berndt would sit on steps in shorts near the playground with his legs spread apart.
Judge Wiley’s summary said "Berndt exposed his genitalia to students and others, by sitting in short shorts without underwear and spreading his legs in front of students."
The Sheriff’s investigative report on the Berndt case contains some 600 photos and 260 single-spaced typed pages of witness interviews and related material, according to Wiley’s order.
"That is a lot of witness interviews, many more times than a typical police investigation," he wrote.
Tom Delaney, a lawyer representing L.A. Unified, argued against releasing the judge’s ruling, asserting that the release of Wiley’s summary of the Sheriff’s investigation would "taint the jury pool" for the trial.
Judge Wiley disagreed, saying, "When it comes to my reason for doing something …I think those need to be public." Wiley’s order noted that he will give 130 people who are named in the report an opportunity to keep their identities hidden.
Plaintiff's attorneys disparaged the school district’s arguments against releasing the judge’s ruling.
The judge’s summary of the sheriff’s investigation is "a snapshot of how horrible Mr. Berndt really is and gives you some level of understanding of what’s in these records," said Manly. "And the question you really need to ask yourself is why would a school district not want this to come out?"
Plaintiffs attorney Luis Carrillo spoke of "a pattern where the LAUSD has hidden documents and witnesses from us."
LAUSD: 'we didn't have a right to have' destroyed documents
In acknowledging the destruction of the old child abuse reports, L.A. Unified spokesman Rossall said "we felt we didn’t have a right to have them."
Most of the documents were generated by L.A. Unified’s now-defunct team called CARE – Child Abuse: Recognize and Eliminate. Operating from 1988-2002, the team worked to prevent and detect abuse in schools. Shayla Lever, the former director of CARE, told KPCC that all of her office's records were packed up and sent to the L.A. Unified’s general counsel in 2002.
For the next six years, L.A. Unified received additional reports of suspected child abuse, Rossall said. All of the documents were destroyed in 2008 when District lawyers interpreted a provision of the penal code to mean that "we shouldn’t have had them in the first place," he said.
But the penal code section Rossall cited only refers to disclosure, not possession, of confidential child abuse reports.
In addition, Rossall said the CARE team’s reports "were never a tool for the District to report and monitor suspected child abuse." He said L.A. Unified has always had a separate system to report possible abuse.
The District destroyed the documents "to ensure they weren’t inadvertently released or confidentiality was broken and that was really to protect the individuals reporting" the alleged abuses, said Rossall, adding that "the district was not tasked with maintaining these records. They were law enforcement records that the district was not in charge of."
Judge Wiley’s order on Wednesday was in response to plaintiff’s attorneys' request that all 2,791 redactions in the Sheriff’s report be removed. He proposed removing 1,540. On Thursday, lawyers will be back in court to further discuss the matter.
Judge Wiley stated that for now, the Sheriff’s report will not be made public.
L.A. Unified has paid nearly $30 million to settle 63 child abuse lawsuits. The current case involves another 71 children. Trial is scheduled to begin July 8th.
*“District spokesman” Sean Rossall is Vice President, Media Relations and Crisis Communication for Cerrell Associates – he’s not a ‘spin doctor’, he’s a ‘spin surgeon’. “Cerrell, founded in 1966, provides our clients with effective counsel and innovative strategies that help them shape public opinion and influence the decision-making process.”