Thursday, May 10, 2018

Strategic Concepts LLC v. Beverly Hills USD (Cal. Ct. App. - May 10, 2018)

I assume that the Beverly Hills Unified School District isn't completely impoverished.  Still, this is absurd.  It personifies everything that some people think about government contracts:

"Karen Christiansen was employed as director of planning and facilities for the Beverly Hills Unified School District (District). Among her duties Christiansen administered the planning, construction, and maintenance of the District’s school facilities. She received a salary of $113,000 per year plus a $150 per month automobile allowance. Her written employment agreement ran from February 2005 through June 2007.

In 2006, Christiansen lobbied District officials to change her position from an employee to a consultant. A former member of the Board of Education (Board) testified, “Ms. Christiansen lobbied hard to move from the director of facilities and planning to consulting status.” In June 2006, Christiansen entered into a new three-year contract with the District terminating her status as an employee and naming her a consultant. The new contract, however, did not change her duties. . . .

Pursuant to the contract, Christiansen’s two minor children were considered children of a District employee for the purpose of attending school in the District. Christiansen was allowed to continue her use of the District’s email. . . . The contract set Christiansen’s compensation at $160 per hour with a maximum compensation of $170,000 per year. . . . Christiansen formed Strategic Concepts, LLC (Strategic), of which she was the sole owner. In early 2007, Christiansen assigned her consulting contract to Strategic. . . .

McVeigh and Assistant Superintendant of Business Services Cheryl Plotkin were required to review and approve Strategic’s invoices. McVeigh described her relationship with Christiansen as “friendly, friends.” Plotkin frequently socialized with Christiansen. She attended parties at Christiansen’s home. They went on two pleasure trips. At Plotkin’s request, Christiansen obtained tickets to a show in Las Vegas for Plotkin and her husband. They reimbursed her. Christiansen hired Plotkin’s daughter to work for Strategic.

In spite of the $170,000 per annum contract limitation, Strategic’s invoices were approved and paid in the following amounts: $253,520 in 2006; $1,313,035 in 2007; and $1,390,804 in 2008. No one from the District alerted the Board about the over-payments. The invoices simply appeared on the Board’s “consent calendar”; that is, items that the Board does not usually review on an individual basis.

When Christiansen discovered her contract and payments were being questioned by the District’s Citizens’ Oversight Committee, she emailed Plotkin: “Let’s just say that the contract was developed by your attorney . . . . Please shut this down fast.” . . .

Christiansen’s friend was the District’s counsel, David Orbach, and his partner, David Huff. Christiansen, Orbach and Huff were among a group of friends who often met for drinks after work. In emails Orbach referred to Christiansen as “my queen” and she referred to him as “my prince.” Christiansen sent Orbach and Huff an unsolicited picture of herself in a black bikini. The attorneys and Christiansen exchanged a number of emails containing sexual innuendo.

On June 3, 2008, the District and Strategic entered into a new consulting contract. The contract terminated on June 30, 2009. The contract it replaced provided for maximum compensation of $170,000 per annum. The new contract provided for compensation per an hourly rate schedule attached as exhibit B to the contract. In addition, the contract provided for a retroactive payment in an amount not to exceed $950,000 for services performed between January 1 and June 30, 2008. . . .

Christiansen proposed that the District retain Strategic for program and project management of the projects to be funded by the bond. Christiansen proposed an amendment to the 2008 contract that Strategic be paid $6 million (2 percent of the $300 million project budget) for program management and $10.125 million (4.5 percent of the construction value of $225 million) for project management. . . . At a Board meeting in August 2008, Plotkin recommended that the Board approve Christiansen’s contract amendment. The Board approved the contract amendment three-to-one with one abstention. No other bids were taken.

On November 8, 2008, the voters passed the $334 million bond measure. On November 20, 2008, Christiansen sent the first invoice for program and project management services in the amount of $231,414.24. Between November 2008 and August 2009, Strategic collected more than $2,000,000 in management fees even though no specific project had been approved."

Wow.  The word "abusive" doesn't even come close to accurately describing these transactions.

Is today's Court of Appeal opinion about Christiansen's conviction for the above-described conduct?  Nope.  "Christiansen was prosecuted for a criminal violation of section 1090. A jury found her guilty. She was sentenced to more than four years in prison and ordered to pay the District $3.5 million in restitution. Division 1 of this court reversed the conviction in People v. Christiansen (2013) 216 Cal.App.4th 1181. The court reasoned that for the purposes of criminal law, section 1090 did not apply to independent contractors."

Today's opinion is instead about her lawsuit against the Beverly Hills Unified School District.  One that went swimmingly (for her, at least).  "The jury awarded Strategic general contract damages of $7,710,509 based on $16,125,000 in program and project management fees less overhead and payments received. The jury also awarded Strategic $6 million in special contract damages based on the District’s actions destroying the value of Strategic. The trial court awarded Strategic $4,310,660 in prejudgment interest pursuant to Civil Code section 3287, subdivision (b), and $2.3 million contractual attorney fees. The total judgment is $20,321,169."

Thankfully, the Court of Appeal reverses.  Because there's still a semblance of rationality in the universe.  One in which someone like Christiansen doesn't receive an additional $20 million windfall.