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Bellflower Unified Paid P/R Firm $5,000 per Month, Allowed Expenses Without Approval

August 15, 2022

By Brian Hews

When HMG-CN exclusively reported in late June the results of a Bellflower Unified School District audit by the state of California that found complete incompetence and negligence by the BUSD administration, many were shocked, but not surprised.

The blame lay inside the BUSD superintendent’s office with the audit finding:

 The superintendent did not clearly communicate its financial position, which caused the board to spend less and amass an unheard of $83 million reserve, failing to meet student needs.

The district did not provide mandated services to students with disabilities and did not adequately mitigate disruptions to students’ education during the pandemic.

The district did not consistently comply with transparency laws. Failing to respond to public records requests in a thorough and timely manner, thus limiting transparency and the public’s opportunity to address the board when it did not disclose required information about its closed sessions.

The article led to Superintendent Tracy McSparren’s release.

Two days after the report, HMG-CN received a massive 2,209-word statement defending the actions of Bellflower Unified from the Blaine Group and owner Devon Blaine.

Unknown to many, and highly unusual for a public school district, BUSD, authorized by Associate Superintendent Sulema Holguin, had retained Blaine’s company, a pricey Beverly Hills public relations firm with a small client list and a corporate address near Rodeo Drive.

But no one knew how pricey, until now.

HMG-CN submitted a public records request for the Blaine Group’s contract with the BUSD on Jul. 26, 2022, informing the district, per the Freedom of Information Act, that it had ten days to respond, with an additional fourteen days, for a total of 24 calendar days.

BUSD did not answer that it had received the request and took past the ten-day window to send the contract, and only after HMG-CN sent two emails and a left voice message on Friday Aug. 5 with BUSD attorney Eric Bathen; the document was later sent at 9:30 pm that night.

The contract was dated Dec. 20, 2021, signed by Blaine and Associate Superintendent Sulema Holguin, and read more like a retainer agreement with an attorney than an agreement with a communications company.

BUSD agreed to pay Blaine $5,000 per month, and, if that was not enough, Blaine would charge an unheard of $350 per hour in addition to the retainer for “urgent needs.” Blaine would also charge $350 for any of her other employees that worked with the BUSD.

If that was not enough, the contract allowed Blaine to submit expenses “without prior approval” for postage, mileage, long distance telephone calls, publications, copied materials, and other “individual expenses under $100.”

But it was the next paragraph that seemed to indicate McSparren and Holguin knew the incriminating audit results were due to be released, and they were preparing to handle the “urgent needs” that was outlined in the contract.

The unusual paragraph, with wording that would not likely stand up in court, stated that Blaine “anticipated working with BUSD Counsel Eric Bathan who may request certain assistance on matters involving claims, potential claims, or disputes of other kinds.”

The contract then classified those anticipated discussions as attorney-client privilege and that Blaine would “segregate that work from other communications and mark as attorney-client privilege.”

The attorney-client relationship affords a client the right to have communications protected from compelled disclosure to any third party, including business associates and competitors, government agencies and even criminal justice authorities.

It is highly unusual for a communications firm working for a public agency to claim attorney-client privilege when discussing client matters unless those matters are somehow criminal or expose the BUSD to potential lawsuits.

In addition, it is questionable whether those communications are even privileged.

Bathan’s client is the BUSD, not Blaine; the Blaine Group has no personal right of confidentiality over any communications between Blaine and the BUSD because the BUSD is Bathan’s client. 

It is analogous to a BUSD school board member communicating with Bathan on an issue; those communications are not privileged because the school board member is not Bathan’s client.

Finally, buried in the agreement’s wording was a sentence, “it is further agreed that if the agent receives a payment from client, but not a signed contract, such payment will be deemed as acceptance of said contract.”

Were McSparran and Holguin attempting to keep the Blaine contract hidden from the board until McSparren reached her spending limit? 

Even though the contract was signed in December, a purchase order, which is a legal document that a buyer creates (BUSD) and sends to a seller (Blaine) to confirm their intentions, was not approved by the board until its April meeting, with Blaine racking up nearly $20,000 in fees.

 Several email into Blaine Group owner Devon Blaine have gone unanswered.