Sunday, February 21, 2010

INVITING TROUBLE: City Hall, LAUSD officials can seem blind to potential conflicts of interest

LA Daily News Editorial

20 Feb 2010 -- AMAZINGLY, despite the enormity of the task of managing the Los Angeles Unified School District, Superintendent Ramon Cortines still found time to do some moonlighting for Scholastic, Inc., one of the nation's top publishers of school textbooks.

Cortines stepped down from the position Thursday after he came under fire, but only after he defended his position. It wasn't a big commitment, he said, serving on the corporation's board for the past 15 years. He put in a few hours here and there at the end of the day, or on weekends, and attended a handful of meetings in New York each year - for which he drew a handsome salary of $150,000.

Nice work if you can get it.

Now, there's no denying that Cortines is an experienced educator, one who knows a lot about instruction, and who would have much valuable input to give a publisher of school texts. But it's obviously inappropriate for the chief of the second-largest school district in the nation, which just so happens to have done $16 million worth of business with Scholastic over the last five years, to continue to sit on the board of a vendor and receive a six-figure salary.

Cortines did the right thing by stepping down. Too bad it was for the wrong reasons. A superintendent who is both savvy and ethical would have recognized long before getting outed in the media that such an arrangement had potential danger in his current position, and have nothing to do with it. But not Cortines. Nor, for that matter, the school board, which failed to investigate Cortines' outside employment before promoting him to the district's top job, and then shrugged off his relationship with Scholastic.

Sadly, LAUSD top brass are not alone in lacking savvy or ethics.

Over in City Hall, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn has been shamed into scuttling a deal in which she would have played arbitrator between Gambol Industries and the city-owned Port of Los Angeles over a proposed, $50 million shipyard on Terminal Island.

The problem? Gambol has poured $12,000 into Hahn's officeholder account and her campaign for lieutenant governor.

Unbelievably, Hahn did not seem to realize that this was a cause for concern. Even now, after pulling out of the plan, she maintains it was essentially harmless.

To be clear, no one is suggesting that either Cortines or Hahn has engaged in corruption. But the point of avoiding conflicts of interest is to steer clear of even the appearance of corruption. In healthy political and business climates, such arrangements are forbidden, lest anyone's good name be sullied by the mere hint of shady dealing.

But in the LAUSD and in City Hall, such conduct apparently raises few objections. And that's a big part of why neither institution can earn the public's trust.

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