Fields Requests Investigation; Accusations Are Related To Proposed Harbor Department Relocation
By George Economides
(Note: This article was originally posted September 5 on the Business Journal’s website, on facebook and sent out as a Newsflash.)
September 11, 2012 - Angry at claims made by a fellow commissioner characterizing a “sweetheart” deal over the port administration building relocation, Long Beach Harbor Commissioner Thomas Fields sent a letter to city officials “requesting the offices of the City Attorney and City Prosecutor investigate certain serious allegations made by Harbor Commissioner Doug Drummond at the August 20th Harbor Commission meeting. During the discussion of the new Administration Building for the Port of Long Beach, Commissioner Drummond accused Commissioner Nick Sramek and myself of improper, unethical and illegal acts.”
In a letter, dated August 21 and obtained by the Business Journal, Fields outlines what he claims are four allegations made by Drummond during a closed session meeting of the five-member commission. (Fields confirmed that letters were sent to the mayor, city attorney, city prosecutor and the attorney assigned to the port.)
“I realize we are not allowed to discuss what goes on in closed session,” Fields told the Business Journal. “My letter does not mention anything about details involving a possible transaction. What I did was discuss what I believe are the slanderous accusations leveled at me and another commissioner, and other well known people in the community, which I believe are beyond any closed session accountability. I cannot sit back and allow someone to accuse me of bribery, underhanded dealings and the like, and ruin the good reputation I have built up in the community over the years.”
Fields writes the following in his letter to the mayor about what Drummond said:
“First allegation: Nick Sramek [another harbor commissioner] and I were being improperly influenced by former City Manager Jerry Miller. He [Drummond] stated that since the two of us [Fields and Sramek] had been on the Planning Commission together we had formed an improper relationship with Mr. Miller.
“Second allegation: Dick Steinke (former Executive Director of the Port of Long Beach) was a golf partner with Jerry Miller and Bill Townsend (Water Commissioner) and partner in Inco Realty. Commissioner Drummond accused Dick Steinke of illegally steering the World Trade Center deal to Bill Townsend and Jerry Miller in what was characterized as a ‘sweetheart’ deal to his buddies.
“Third allegation: Ms. Gail Wassil, Port of Long Beach employee and Jerry Miller’s wife is also involved in this illegal conspiracy to orchestrate the sale or lease of the World Trade Center for the benefit of the Inco Company.
“Fourth allegation: Commissioner Drummond stated that my home had been in foreclosure and I owed Jerry Miller financially for saving it. Thus, I had accepted a bribe and this explained my stand on the World Trade Center. When I asked Commissioner Drummond for proof, he stated it was known by everyone as being true. When pressed to name the individuals who had told him this allegation, he once again repeated that it was all over town.”
Fields concluded his letter by writing, “Equally as important these accusations and allegations have tainted the process of securing a new home for the Port of Long Beach and can not be left uninvestigated.” Reached by phone, Commissioner Sramek confirmed Fields’ account of the meeting. “I finally had enough and left the meeting,” Sramek told the Business Journal.
Miller called Drummond’s accusations “preposterous.”
(When the Business Journal broke the story on September 5, it had not reached out to Wassil for comment. Once she read the article online, she issued the following statement: “I am very disappointed that the Business Journal did not offer me a chance to comment on the allegations of ‘illegal conspiracy.’ I have had absolutely no involvement in the selection process of a new Port administration building. The allegations reported in your article are completely baseless.”)
The Business Journal has investigated the alleged accusation by Drummond that Fields was upside down on his home in the Bixby Knolls area of Long Beach and found that to be inaccurate. According to documents received by the Business Journal through a realtor and title company, a notice of default has never been filed on the property owned by Fields and his wife, Susan. Fields added, “I’ve got an 800-plus credit rating, which the city knows about because they did an investigation on me before I got my appointment [to the harbor commission].”
As of September 5th, Fields said Mayor Foster had not responded to his letter, although City Attorney Bob Shannon met with Fields soon after receiving the letter. Shannon told the Business Journal “this is a personnel matter” that he is continuing to look into and cannot comment any further.
Reached today by phone to be given an opportunity to respond to Fields’ letter, Drummond said he could not comment because the meeting was held in closed session.
Asked if he had seen the letter, Drummond said: “I have not seen the letter, either. I’m not going to address anything that was in closed session. . . . No. I don’t need to review it because I’m not going to address it. I’m sure I’ll get a copy of it later.”
(According to Fields, after the Business Journal broke the story, Dummond sent him a letter of apology.)
Drummond is a former police commander, eight-year member of the Long Beach City Council and a 2006 candidate for mayor of Long Beach. He was appointed to the harbor commission last August by Mayor Foster.
Finding A New Admin Building
At that time, the five-member commission was looking for a new home to relocate the 400-member harbor department staff, whose headquarters at 925 Harbor Plaza Dr. had been deemed structurally unsafe in a 2010 report.
A year earlier, Mayor Foster used his line-item veto to nix the development of a new headquarters adjacent to the current site. Foster called the deal too expensive.
Port staff looked for another option. Eventually, a plan to purchase the World Trade Center building on Ocean Boulevard was rejected on a 2-2 vote, with Fields and Sramek wanting the deal. Drummond was joined by another newly appointed commissioner, Rich Dines, in opposition. Commission President Susan Wise was told by City Attorney Shannon that she had to recuse herself since her husband leased space at the World Trade Center. Months later, it was determined by the California Fair Political Practices Commission that she could vote on the lease or purchase of a new headquarters.
Added into the public discussion was testimony to the commission by well-known Long Beach attorney Skip Keesal, who offered to build the port a new headquarters in Downtown Long Beach. Commissioners, meanwhile, decided to go back to the drawing board and requested information from anyone who had a building available for lease or purchase and which met specific criteria. That list has now been narrowed to the Legacy Partners-owned World Trade Center, a building adjacent to the airport at 4801 Airport Plaza Dr. owned by Long Beach Airport Business Park II, and two buildings – the City National Bank building at 11 Golden Shore and Union Bank building at 400 Oceangate downtown – owned by Keesal and others as 400 Oceangate Ltd.
Asked why Drummond would make the reported accusations toward him, Fields said: “It’s really not about me. It’s a bigger issue of the port. I think that if you really want to get to the heart of the story, you have to follow the issue about this [new administration] building. Because it’s really at the root of this thing – the building and the attempts to purchase it and for individuals who have a vested interest in it not being purchased.”
Shipping Industry Concerned
Companies doing business with the port are paying close attention to what is occurring among Long Beach harbor commissioners. John McLaurin is president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, which includes all the major shipping lines calling on West Coast ports. Following is an excerpt from a column he wrote August 29 for a Journal of Commerce blog:
“It is becoming clear to observers in the trade community that Long Beach Commission meetings are becoming more divisive, political and controversial. It is also quite evident that some Commissioners are becoming more involved in day-to-day affairs of the Port, not merely setting policy but directing and micromanaging staff activities. How this will ultimately play out is uncertain at this time, but the past reputation of the Long Beach Port Commission, which was a strength of the organization, is quickly eroding. This has long-term implications for the Port of Long Beach as port competitiveness becomes more intense throughout North America.”
Seismic Report Issued Warning
Commissioners have been debating the issue of a new home for quite some time. In the meantime, many port staff – of which about 400 work at the current headquarters office – have raised concerns about the safety of the building which they occupy. “People are afraid and want out of here,” said one port staffer who didn’t want his name used for fear of retribution. Another said, “There is considerable construction going on right now around the building. It’s a pounding and it scares people. They don’t know if they should get under their desk or not.”
Nearly two years ago, on October 8, 2010, a “Brief Structural Report” on the existing port administration building was submitted to port staff and harbor commissioners by ABS Consulting of Irvine. The Business Journal obtained a copy of the report earlier this week.
The Executive Summary of the report stated in part: “Based upon ABS Consulting’s review of the previously issued reports and current code requirements, the existing Administration Building is highly susceptible to partial and/or total collapse during a major seismic event. Our review and assessment concludes that two major building deficiencies contribute to the high potential for building collapse in a major seismic event.
“With the combination of severe soil/foundation and building framing deficiencies, the potential for a catastrophic building failure and associated loss of life is highly probable for the existing Administration Building in the event of a moderate to large earthquake.”
According to one of the authors of the report, Martin E. Johnson, the area has two large faults: the Palos Verdes Fault offshore; and the Newport/Inglewood Fault by Signal Hill. The latter caused the 1933 Long Beach earthquake. Asked if he could predict a specific magnitude (6.0, 6.5, etc.) that could level the building, Johnson said he could not because there are too many factors involved.
“The health and safety of the employees should be our number one focus,” said Commissioner Fields. “We need to resolve this and quickly.”
Asked if he had hired an attorney, Fields said, “I’m in the process of doing that; I am going to have legal counsel.”