Lewd Photos, Harassment And Retaliation Allegations: Inside The Meltdown At LAUSD's Powerful Watchdog Agency

FILE - Ken Bramlett, former Inspector General of the L.A. Unified School District, listens during a school board meeting on June 5, 2018. Bramlett left LAUSD at the end of June 2018. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

The Office of the Inspector General at the Los Angeles Unified School District is the type of government agency that any taxpayer — not just those with kids in school — would want working well.

Hunting for signs of waste, fraud and misconduct, the OIG monitors $9.6 billion dollars in spending by the nation's second-largest school system each year — roughly the amount of money the state pays into the California State University system every year.

For the last year, though, the office tasked with inspecting LAUSD's internal workings has been roiled by internal controversy of its own.

Last spring, the OIG's second-in-command resigned amid allegations of misconduct, and the boss lost his shot at renewal of his long-term contract. By late fall, a third high-ranking official who complained about them both was put on leave, charged with sexual harassment and ultimately fired.

Now, as the new boss settles in at the OIG, a KPCC/LAist investigation reveals new details about the turmoil that roiled the department over the last year, and raises the question: Who's holding whom accountable in the L.A. Unified School District?

THE ALLEGATIONS

Between late 2017 and mid-2018, at least four OIG employees filed formal complaints with either LAUSD's Equal Opportunity Section or with California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

Their complaints targeted either then-Inspector General Ken Bramlett or his top deputy, Frank Cabibi, alleging a hostile workplace culture, sexual harassment and racial discrimination; two of the employees who complained also requested whistleblower protection from LAUSD or a state agency.

KPCC/LAist has obtained copies of these four formal complaints against Cabibi and Bramlett, along with other government records that describe the allegations, including contemporaneous notes, memos and written statements submitted to higher authorities or district officials as part of the complaint process; these records add greater detail to the allegations employees leveled against Bramlett and Cabibi.

In addition to this trove of government records, some of the allegations are described in a wrongful termination lawsuit filed in December by Walt Finnigan, a former OIG investigator and supervisor, who also spoke to KPCC/LAist on the record. (The question of why he was fired is a story all its own, with its own ties back to Bramlett and Cabibi. We'll get to that later.)

Here are the claims:

  • Two OIG employees' complaints alleged Cabibi — their direct boss, and the organization's second-in-command — made discriminatory remarks about Latinos and gays.
  • Two complaints alleged that Cabibi told an OIG employee she "needed to get laid" to "knock the cobwebs out of there."
  • According to Finnigan and memos by three other OIG employees, OIG investigator Donald "Rusty" McMillen allegedly showed lewd images from confiscated computers and cell phones not only to Cabibi, but to other investigators who had no work-related need to see them. One of the photos McMillen and Cabibi are alleged to have described was a sensitive image of another OIG employee.

Some complaints named Inspector General Bramlett (Cabibi's boss) as being at the root of a troubled working environment. According to the complaints and other records, some employees maintained that Bramlett — an ex-police captain and state official in Georgia — gave Cabibi free reign and enabled the alleged mistreatment.

Cabibi did not return multiple messages from KPCC/LAist seeking comment.

Reached by phone, Bramlett declined to answer specific questions about the allegations.

"You have some bad information there," Bramlett told KPCC/LAist.

KPCC/LAist also spoke with Bramlett's successor as Inspector General, William Stern, and with L.A. Unified School Board president Mónica Garcia. All declined to answer questions that they said pertained to "confidential personnel matters."

In response to KPCC/LAist's questions about specific allegations, LAUSD officials sent a written statement.

"The Los Angeles Unified School District takes all allegations of hostile work environments and misconduct seriously," the district's statement said. "Upon investigating these issues, immediate corrective action was taken."

"These matters," the statement continued, "are now the subject of pending litigation, which is filled with inaccurate allegations. We will continue to follow all protocols as we vigorously defend against this meritless lawsuit."

When asked to spell out which of Finnigan's claims were false, a district spokeswoman responded with a new statement:

"Los Angeles Unified is confident that it will demonstrate that Walt Finnigan's allegations are inaccurate. The inaccuracies in his allegations are too numerous to specify, which shall be dealt with in litigation."

The OIG isn't a run-of-the-mill internal investigator. State law specially grants LAUSD's Inspector General with the power to subpoena witnesses and documents, giving the office real investigative muscle. The OIG also reports directly to the L.A. Unified School Board, bypassing the district's administrative power structure — even the superintendent. The arrangement is supposed to ensure the office's independence.

However, the complainants and records KPCC/LAist obtained describe a workplace culture at odds with the OIG's mission of holding others in LAUSD accountable. The complaints also raise questions about whether OIG's independence can withstand weakened leadership or internal strain.

"Investigators have an enormous amount of power," Maribeth Vander Weele, who served as inspector general for Chicago Public Schools between 1998 and 2001, told KPCC/LAist. "They must use that power, look at that power as a sacred trust. When they abuse that power," she added, "they're really subjecting people — whether it's the victims or the perpetrators — to injustice."

FILE - Empty cups sit on a table in the deserted basement cafeteria in the L.A. Unified School District's headquarters building — often referred to simply as "Beaudry" for its address on South Beaudry Avenue — on Jan. 11, 2019. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

A PRIVATE LIFE UNEARTHED

The discovery of sexually explicit photographs during the course of an OIG investigation — and more importantly, how they were handled — set the stage for some of what happened next.

According to complaints and records KPCC/LAist has obtained, the photos were unearthed in 2016, when an OIG investigator named Donald McMillen began investigating a case involving allegations of sex, drinking and drug use within LAUSD.

In complaints or memos later sent to district higher-ups, four OIG employees alleged McMillen showed his colleagues lewd photos confiscated as part of the case — photos of women in compromising positions and of men performing apparent sexual acts. McMillen allegedly showed the photos to OIG employees who weren't working the case, meaning they had no work-related reason to see them.

During the same investigation, McMillen also came across sexually explicit photographs of an OIG employee — a woman KPCC/LAist has chosen to call the Co-Worker to protect her privacy.

KPCC/LAist learned about the Co-Worker's photos from Finnigan and three memos OIG employees sent to district officials during the complaint process.

The OIG employees writing the memos alleged that McMillen discussed the Co-Worker's photos with his boss, Frank Cabibi, during a morning "coffee meeting" — a regular but informal gathering of OIG employees in the cafeteria of LAUSD headquarters. Several employees' memos say that from that point forward, the photos were an open secret in the office.

The employees wrote that Cabibi and McMillen described the photos as showing the Co-Worker nearly-nude or locked in a kiss with a man who was a subject of the investigation.

OIG senior investigator Walter Finnigan told KPCC/LAist that he witnessed Cabibi showing the Co-Worker what Finnigan believed to be the photos, asking her in the office, "Who's this young lady?"

Three of the records KPCC/LAist reviewed said Inspector General Bramlett himself was briefed about the photos of the Co-Worker.

Initially, investigators were concerned that the Co-Worker's relationship with the subject of the investigation could jeopardize the OIG's inquiry. According to multiple accounts, that concern was addressed early on when McMillen interviewed the Co-Worker and learned that her relationship with the subject of the investigation was long over. They concluded the photos weren't relevant to the investigation.

McMillen's investigation concluded in January 2017 and led to the termination or resignation of several LAUSD employees; the subject shown in the photos kissing the Co-Worker resigned.

A 'HOSTILE WORK ENVIRONMENT': ALLEGATIONS AGAINST CABIBI EMERGE

To critics of how the OIG's office was run, the explicit photos of the Co-Worker underscored problems with the workplace culture.

In December 2017, an OIG investigator filed a complaint against Cabibi with LAUSD's Equal Opportunity Section (EOS), the agency that handles workplace harassment cases.

Several other OIG staffers came forward to EOS or to other LAUSD leaders with written or in-person testimony aimed at aiding the investigator's case against Cabibi, according to copies of the documents KPCC/LAist has reviewed.

Finnigan's lawsuit says he spoke up, too.

According to the complaint and other documents outlining allegations made to higher officials, Cabibi would intimidate employees by "yelling" and "monopolizing conversations." The documents said employees tried to be careful not to upset or anger Cabibi. As one employee's memo put it, interactions that began as friendly banter would sometimes devolve into Cabibi denigrating his colleagues.

The documents also show employee allegations that Cabibi, during meetings, would on occasion shout, "Shut the f*** up, I'm talking." Cabibi, they alleged, made derogatory remarks about Mexicans. They also alleged Cabibi made demeaning remarks about one male colleague's sexuality, alleging that on one occasion, Cabibi called this employee a "pussy" and made remarks about an employee's shoulder bag — which Cabibi allegedly called a "fag bag."

"I think, in a way, [Cabibi] thought it was funny to say that stuff," Finnigan told KPCC/LAist in an interview. "It's shock value — but it's not funny in a work environment."

Six weeks later, frustrated by what he considered a lackluster response from the district's Equal Opportunity Section, the investigator who originally complained shared his concerns with Cabibi's bosses on the LAUSD School Board — president Mónica García and vice president Nick Melvoin.

In the email to García and Melvoin, which KPCC/LAist has obtained, the investigator outlined allegations against Cabibi, and also described OIG head Ken Bramlett as hands-off, disengaged and frequently absent.

According to Finnigan, Bramlett's low profile left Cabibi free to "bully" his underlings. "Frank had full control of the office," Finnigan said in an interview. Cabibi's control "wouldn't be a bad thing if there wasn't sexual harassment going on," Finnigan said. After all, Bramlett's job was to lead OIG; Cabibi, as his deputy, managed investigations day-to-day.

"But," Finnigan said, "Frank started a hostile work environment."

In a phone interview with KPCC/LAist, board president García said she couldn't respond directly to the allegations because they involved a personnel matter.

"When issues internally — like to this office — arise, and the board is made aware," García said, "the board has a responsibility to address them."

Ten days after going to the school board, the investigator also took his grievance to the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), according to a document KPCC/LAist has obtained. After this step, events appeared to accelerate.

Around the same time, other OIG employees began meeting with EOS personnel, providing details on Cabibi's alleged transgressions, as well as the overall culture under Bramlett.

Among those allegations: Cabibi kept a law enforcement-style baton in his office, according to two documents sent to EOS— even though a 2012 state law made ownership of billy clubs illegal. (The possible punishment: up to a year in jail.)

FRANK CABIBI IS OUT

By early March 2018, Cabibi's job seemed to be in jeopardy.

Aware of the allegations, Bramlett met privately with Cabibi and suggested Cabibi save face and resign, according to testimony Bramlett gave later in a sworn deposition. (Bramlett provided the testimony as part of a different wrongful termination lawsuit filed by a former OIG employee, ex-investigator Cheryl Dorsey.)

"I told [Cabibi], there's a possibility there would be further disciplinary action ... up to and including termination," Bramlett said in that deposition. According to Bramlett, Cabibi responded by saying he'd have to think it over.

Cabibi's account differs. In a deposition of his own (also given as part of Dorsey's case), Cabibi said no one encouraged him to step down. The decision to leave LAUSD, he said, was his own.

Indeed, according to a short-lived lawsuit he filed against LAUSD last fall, Cabibi said he was never punished in connection with any of these allegations, nor was he ever informed of the results of LAUSD's investigation into the complaints against him.

In a written statement submitted as part of that suit, Cabibi said that a January 2018 conversation with an Equal Opportunity Section supervisor led him to believe "that the issue was minor." Cabibi wrote that he felt "the reason for the case was retaliation against me for a simple admonishment."

But in documents filed as part of Cabibi's lawsuit, LAUSD lawyers said school district officials had determined the allegations against Cabibi were "well-founded." Venessa Martinez, the EOS investigator who handled the complaint against Cabibi, wrote a statement saying "some of the allegations" against Cabibi "were corroborated."

Things came to a head around March 8, when an OIG employee emailed EOS to report what he perceived to be a threat.

He said that Cabibi nearly mowed him down while the two passed each other in the restroom. He described Cabibi as "upset" enough to make him fearful for his safety. The employee arranged to take the next day off of work, according to the email chain with EOS, which KPCC/LAist has obtained.

Cabibi came to work the next day, but it would be his last time in the office. According to his deposition testimony, Cabibi called a meeting with his subordinates and announced his resignation. He left the district shortly thereafter.

FILE - Los Angeles Unified School Board member Mónica García (right) speaks during a meeting on Aug. 22, 2017, as colleague George McKenna (left) and LAUSD staff (rear) — including then-Inspector General Ken Bramlett (back row, center) — listen. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

BRAMLETT'S LAST STAND

In the wake of Frank Cabibi's departure, Inspector General Ken Bramlett now faced two hurdles. Many of his employees disapproved of his leadership methods and resented the culture they felt he'd either ignored or created since taking control in 2013.

And then there was the seven-member LAUSD school board, which in June would decide whether to re-up Bramlett's contract.

On March 12, 2018, the Monday after Cabibi's last appearance in the office, Bramlett called an all-hands meeting with the investigations unit — a staff of roughly a dozen OIG employees.

According to written accounts of the meeting provided to KPCC/LAist, the Inspector General said he owed some people an apology, but noted that he never saw Cabibi harass anyone. Bramlett also said that if employees are harassed, they needed to inform him; if they didn't report problems, he asked, how was he to know what was going on?

Bramlett's claim of ignorance was met with a collective eye roll.

Some who attended the meeting were dismayed by an apology they viewed as disingenuous followed by what they saw as passive-aggressive victim-blaming. At that point, some staffers who were unnamed witnesses to the early complaint against Cabibi decided to make their own official complaints — not only against Cabibi, but against Bramlett and investigator Donald McMillen, the investigator who'd allegedly shared explicit photos.

KPCC/LAist has reviewed complaints against Bramlett filed with both LAUSD's Equal Opportunity Section and the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. These complainants also forwarded written accounts of their concerns to Bramlett's bosses on the LAUSD school board.

One of the formal complaints KPCC/LAist obtained laid out accounts of the staff meeting Bramlett convened after Cabibi's dismissal. Two other employees complained separately to EOS about Bramlett's handling of that meeting.

At this point, the allegation Cabibi told a female colleague she "needed to get laid" to "knock the cobwebs out of there" formally came to light in two employees' complaints to EOS. The employees wrote that Cabibi also directed similar remarks toward another woman who worked for the OIG.

These documents suggest Bramlett's efforts to smooth tensions after Cabibi's departure weren't working.

THE 'CO-WORKER PHOTOS' RESURFACE

One day in late April 2018, Walter Finnigan walked by the desk of fellow investigator Donald McMillen. Finnigan says McMillen was going through the files of the long-dormant case that had turned up those pictures of their female Co-Worker.

Finnigan is the OIG investigator who claims to have witnessed the agency's then-second-in-command, Frank Cabibi, confront the Co-Worker about the photos.

Finnigan saw no reason for McMillen to be in the file; if the case wasn't closed, the investigation certainly wasn't active. Finnigan also said he was concerned that any resurfacing of that case could lead to the photos again becoming an issue.

Finnigan told KPCC/LAist that on May 8, 2018, alone with the Co-Worker in his office, he asked her if anyone ever told her what was done with the photos she was in.

By this point, Finnigan was a supervisor. He told the Co-Worker that he'd recently seen McMillen looking at the case file. Finnigan also said he told the Co-Worker that a year earlier he had overheard Cabibi asking her about what seemed to be the images. Finnigan recalled Cabibi showing the Co-Worker something and asking, "Who's this young lady?"

After hearing the Co-Worker's account of that exchange, Finnigan said he decided he had to act.

"I said to [her], 'You know, I've got to file something,'" Finnigan told KPCC/LAist, "because that's basically a violation of your privacy rights.'"

The Co-Worker implored Finnigan not to take action. According to a written account of the meeting she gave to EOS, "I told Walt I had a lot of s*** to deal with. I don't need this."

But Finnigan said he had no choice. The circumstances surrounding the photos, he told KPCC/LAist, were grounds for the Co-Worker to possibly make a sexual harassment complaint — which, as a supervisor, he too was obligated to report.

Finnigan said he viewed it this way: If he didn't report what he knew about the photos, the Co-Worker could later accuse him of hiding evidence of harassment; if he did report, he'd be reopening a wound.

"What happens," Finnigan explained, "if she says later on, 'I told Walt about it'?"

Finnigan moved forward with a report.

The Co-Worker's version of the conversation with Finnigan is radically different. In a written account obtained by KPCC/LAist, she said she told Bramlett, who was still in charge, about her conversation with Finnigan right away.

She reported that Finnigan spoke about the photos using "specific sexual language" that made her uncomfortable; she said Finnigan called the photos "risqué." (Finnigan denied ever using the term.) She said she believed that Finnigan was seizing on an opportunity to bring down Bramlett.

Bramlett sent Finnigan home on leave. In the meantime, the Co-Worker filed a sexual harassment complaint against Finnigan with the EOS, which read, in part, that he had used her story to "further an agenda."

She wrote in her complaint: "[Finnigan] violated my privacy and dragged me without remorse into a very distasteful scheme."

Finnigan, in a complaint he filed four days after being sent home, alleged his forced leave wasn't really about how he'd handled his conversation with the Co-Worker. He accused Bramlett of harboring a "personal vendetta" against him.

'WE FELT NO ONE WOULD SUPPORT OUR CLAIMS'

Finnigan argued that given the history between them, Bramlett couldn't be objective.

Finnigan had targeted Bramlett with his complaint on behalf of the Co-Worker, and supported several other complaints filed against Bramlett's right-hand-man, Cabibi.

LAUSD's statement said "third-party investigations were conducted" in response to OIG employees' complaints.

What's not clear is whether an outside investigator handled every complaint; Finnigan said no outside investigator was brought in to look into his firing.

Two law professors specializing in employment law told KPCC/LAist that while they weren't familiar enough with the case to speak in detail about it, Finnigan's concerns about his boss's objectivity sounded valid. Given how tangled the complaint about the Co-Worker had become, USC Gould School of Law professor Lisa Klerman said that LAUSD might have handled the situation better by bringing in a third-party investigator.

"Handling [the case] internally leaves open criticism that they [LAUSD] were perhaps just protecting their own," said Klerman, who's worked as a mediator in employment cases for the last 14 years. "I'm not saying that happened here, but it allows the other side to make that argument."

"The issue really is, how pervasive is this [kind of behavior] within the office? Within the whole organization?" said Sandor Samuels of Loyola Law School in L.A. "If it's very pervasive, then someone's not doing their job, and you might want to bring in a third party.

"If one of the issues is that the boss, the supervisor of the whole department is one of the people under investigation," he added, "obviously, you don't have that person investigating. It's the fox guarding the henhouse, so to speak."

Two OIG insiders, who spoke to KPCC/LAist on the condition they not be named because they feared retribution, said Finnigan's story illustrates that something is deeply wrong with LAUSD's culture of handling workplace harassment allegations.

They felt Finnigan's punishment was evidence of a double-standard. Just two weeks prior to Finnigan being sent home, another supervisor in the office was formally reprimanded for allegedly failing to speak up about Cabibi — which would mean this supervisor would've had to speak up against his own boss.

The supervisor feared Cabibi might retaliate if the supervisor went over Cabibi's head, according to two of the records obtained by KPCC/LAist that detailed concerns about Cabibi and Bramlett to LAUSD officials.

A feeling of mistrust in the Equal Opportunity Section — an LAUSD office charged with handling workplace complaints — was a common theme in several complaints from OIG employees. Two complainants wrote to higher-ranking LAUSD officials to raise concerns EOS investigators weren't following-up with possible witnesses to complaints against Bramlett or Cabibi.

"We felt no one was going to support our claims in [EOS]," Finnigan wrote in a May email to school board members Melvoin and García. "It was not until after the board stepped in ... that action was taken."

THE FALLOUT

During a closed-door session on June 6, 2018, LAUSD school board members deadlocked 3-3 on a vote to renew Bramlett's contract.

Sources told KPCC/LAist the tie-breaking vote belonged to Ref Rodriguez, who abstained due to a separate scandal that eventually cost him his job. (At the time, Rodriguez faced criminal charges connected to the finances of his 2015 campaign. He was also at the center of an inquiry into the finances at a charter school he co-founded that LAUSD officials had referred to OIG for investigation.)

Without a decision, the board offered Bramlett a short-term contract extension that would've allowed him to remain on the job through September. Bramlett declined the offer.

Sources told KPCC that there had been significant concerns among the board that "Bramlett was overseeing a 'hostile work environment'" in OIG. It's hard to know whether Finnigan's complaint — or, as some might see it, his shrewd political maneuver — played a role in Bramlett leaving.

Inspector General Bramlett's final day at OIG was June 29.

Three weeks later, LAUSD's Equal Opportunity Section dismissed Finnigan's complaints about Bramlett and McMillen, as well as complaints against Bramlett, Cabibi and McMillen by other OIG staffers.

In some cases, EOS officials said they found minor wrongdoing by the accused officials that had already been "administratively handled," according to case closure letters KPCC/LAist has obtained. In other cases, EOS officials addressed allegations by pointing out that Bramlett and Cabibi had both already left the district.

In October, more than five months after Finnigan was put on leave, top LAUSD official Alma Peña-Sanchez informed him he would be fired, according to his lawsuit. The school board made it official in a routine vote on Dec. 11.

Meanwhile, Bramlett's replacement arrived on January 31, 2019. New Inspector General William Stern is a former federal agent who recently concluded 20 years with the FBI.

"We will work to make sure that ... [LAUSD's] 65,000 employees do what they're trusted to do," Stern told KPCC/LAist in a phone interview earlier this month. He said he was limited in his ability to discuss the personnel matters in this story.

Donald McMillen, the investigator who shared the explicit photos, and who was accused of harassment in several employees' formal complaints and in Finnigan's lawsuit, remains employed at OIG.


READ MORE: WHY THE OIG OFFICE MATTERS

LAUSD serves more than 484,000 children; 81 percent of the district's students qualify as low-income. LAUSD also oversees publicly funded charter schools attended by another 117,000 kids.

And corruption can have a direct impact on the education those children receive in school, says Maribeth Vander Weele, the former Inspector General for Chicago Public Schools.

Vander Weele knows this from experience. A former reporter, she wrote a book in 1994 laying bare the flaws in the nation's third-largest school system. In 1995, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley hired Vander Weele to investigate Chicago Public Schools from within, and she rose to become IG herself in 1998.

A principal once told Vander Weele the internet in her school was wired so poorly that she had to decide between giving students internet access and sending the information necessary to pay her teachers. Vander Weele knew why: the IT administrator "wasn't competent for that job," but, like many high-ranking officials, had been hired because of his loyalty, not his skill.

The job of an Inspector General's office, Vander Weele said, is to ferret out such waste and fraud. Because that's the job, Vander Weele agreed: the OIG ought to be above reproach.

"If you're going to be a watchdog, you should be following higher standards when it comes to investigative behavior," Vander Weele said. Internally, she said, following a higher standard means addressing workplace culture problems, rather than allowing them to fester.

Adding to the challenge, an Inspector General's office is often a venue in which workplace cultures clash. IGs often hire a mix of white-collar crime specialists — like lawyers, auditors or journalists — as well as former law enforcement officers. (In this story, for example, Bramlett was a former police officer in Georgia; Cabibi worked in the federal Justice and Agriculture departments; Finnigan was a longtime federal tax investigator.)

"When you're managing a group of people who come from ... the rough-and-tumble world of street investigations where the niceties of a professional environment are not valued, it's a challenge," said Vander Weele, who now owns a private investigative firm that was once hired as watchdog for the Public Building Commission of Chicago.

Inspectors General are not cops kicking in doors, getting their hands dirty in the name of justice, Vander Weele said.

"That black-hat mentality is not something that Inspector General offices should have," she said, "because you're not dealing with street criminals. You're dealing with an education system with white-collar crime and some misbehaving employees and such — but it's a different culture, so it invites a different type of behavior.

"It's up to the leader," Vander Weele said — meaning, it's up to the person in charge of the Inspector General's office — "to either change that mindset, or not hire that type of person."

"Or," she added, "get him out."


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