L.A. school nu­tri­tion pi­o­neer is charged

David Binkle, hailed for re­duc­ing fat and salt in LAUSD meals, faces em­bez­zle­ment and other al­le­ga­tions.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By James Queally

For years, David Binkle was hailed as a pi­o­neer among school nu­tri­tion ad­vo­cates for ac­com­plish­ing a near-her­culean task — us­ing pro­duce and meats pro­vided by lo­cal grow­ers to greatly re­duce the num­ber of fatty meals served in the na­tion’s sec­ond-largest school dis­trict.

The Los An­ge­les Uni­fied School Dis­trict serves nearly 700,000 meals per day, and the pro­fes­sional chef helped lead a charge that saw veg­e­tar­ian cur­ries, pad thai noo­dles and quinoa sal­ads re­place old cafe­te­ria sta­ples such as chicken nuggets and corn dogs.

The ini­tia­tives won the dis­trict nu­mer­ous awards, drew praise from then-First Lady Michelle Obama as she led a na­tional push to com­bat child­hood obe­sity, and earned Binkle ap­pear­ances on Tedx Talks.

But as he was rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing meals for the dis­trict’s stu­dents, pros­e­cu­tors al­lege, Binkle il­le­gally fun­neled roughly $65,000 of the dis­trict’s money into a pri­vate con­sult­ing firm he ran, then placed some of that money into his own pocket.

The 55-year-old ap­peared in court Tues­day and pleaded not guilty to 15 felony counts in­clud­ing em­bez­zle­ment and mis­ap­pro­pri­a­tion of public funds. He posted $220,000 bail and is sched­uled to re­turn to court in Oc­to­ber.

“While rec­og­niz­ing that ev­ery­one is in­no­cent un­til proven guilty, the charges against Mr. Binkle are ex­tremely up­set­ting as they do not re­flect the pro­fes­sion­al­ism, ethics and char­ac­ter we ex­pect of all L.A. Uni­fied em­ploy­ees,” the school dis­trict said in a state­ment.

Emails and calls to Binkle seek­ing com­ment were not re­turned. His at­tor­ney, Alec Rose, de­clined to com­ment. In a pre­vi­ous state­ment to The Times, Binkle de­nied wrong­do­ing and said al­le­ga­tions of fi­nan­cial mis­con­duct were un­sub­stan­ti­ated.

Ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments, Binkle re­peat­edly mis­ap­pro­pri­ated dis­trict funds in amounts rang­ing from $5,000 to $15,000 be­tween 2010 and 2014.

Pros­e­cu­tors also al­lege that he forged an ap­pli­ca­tion to be­come a ven­dor with the dis­trict and failed to dis­close out­side fi­nan­cial in­ter­ests.

If con­victed, he faces up to 13 years in prison.

Binkle worked as a chef be­fore join­ing the dis­trict as

deputy di­rec­tor of food ser­vices in 2008.

His ini­tia­tives to push for more health­ful food won praise from Washington and Los An­ge­les, and Binkle en­joyed broad sup­port from school nu­tri­tion ad­vo­cates, lo­cal farm­ers and the union that rep­re­sented school ser­vice man­agers.

Binkle was cred­ited with adopt­ing menus that low­ered the sodium and fat con­tent of school meals and with in­creas­ing the amount of food served daily in cafe­te­rias.

Binkle dra­mat­i­cally al­tered the way the dis­trict pro­cured in­gre­di­ents, opt­ing for years-long con­tracts with providers that in­cluded Tyson Foods Inc., Jen­nie-O Turkey Store, Gold­star Foods, Five Star Gourmet Foods, Drift­wood Dairy and Don Lee Farms. Five of the ven­dors also agreed to con­trib­ute about $500,000 an­nu­ally to a mar­ket­ing pro­gram that pro­moted health­ful eat­ing in the dis­trict’s schools.

But prob­lems be­gan to arise. Ge­orge Beck, a for­mer food ser­vices deputy branch di­rec­tor re­spon­si­ble for ac­count­ing and bud­gets, pre­vi­ously told The Times he be­gan ques­tion­ing Binkle’s man­age­ment of the mar­ket­ing pro­gram as early as 2011.

The dis­trict took no cor­rec­tive ac­tion, how­ever, ac­cord­ing to Beck, who says he was laid off in re­tal­i­a­tion two years later.

In 2012, Binkle was el­e­vated to the po­si­tion of di­rec­tor of food ser­vices, over­see­ing a pro­gram with a bud­get of hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars.

In Novem­ber 2014, a scathing re­port from the dis­trict’s Of­fice of the In­spec­tor Gen­eral ac­cused him of fail­ing to dis­close his own­er­ship of an out­side culi­nary con­sult­ing firm or re­port pay­ments from ven­dors to at­tend school nu­tri­tion con­fer­ences.

His firm, Cal­i­for­nia Culi­nary Con­sult­ing, pre­sented “at min­i­mum an ap­pear­ance of a con­flict of in­ter­est,” the au­dit said. And the mar­ket­ing pro­gram was “be­ing mis­man­aged and at worst be­ing con­sis­tently abused” by Binkle, ac­cord­ing to the au­dit.

A month later, the dis­trict placed Binkle on un­paid leave. At the time, he was mak­ing an an­nual salary of $152,000.

In an email to The Times in 2015, Binkle said the state con­flict-of-in­ter­est law did not re­quire him to dis­close any­thing about his firm be­cause all of his con­sult­ing in­come that year came from out­side Los An­ge­les County.

Binkle said he was “frus­trated and baff led” by the al­le­ga­tions. He con­tended that his use of the mar­ket­ing funds was above­board and had been ap­proved by dis­trict su­per­vi­sors, in­clud­ing the for­mer chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer and then-chief deputy su­per­in­ten­dent, Michelle King, who now runs the dis­trict.

“I have done noth­ing wrong and have noth­ing to hide, since my ac­tions were ap­proved and en­cour­aged from se­nior dis­trict of­fi­cials, gen­eral coun­sel or the ethics of­fice,” Binkle wrote in the email. “I am con­fi­dent the truth and facts will show the al­le­ga­tions are un­sub­stan­ti­ated.”

Beck said the al­le­ga­tions against Binkle rep­re­sent a larger prob­lem within the dis­trict. Binkle, Beck said, was al­lowed to op­er­ate with vir­tu­ally no su­per­vi­sion, cre­at­ing a sit­u­a­tion that cost the dis­trict money and al­lowed him to en­ter into con­tracts with ven­dors with es­sen­tially no in­put from other school of­fi­cials.

“He ne­go­ti­ated these con­tracts with these firms with no over­sight, no­body else par­tic­i­pat­ing. It was a huge pro­cure­ment bu­reau­cracy. There was one con­tract for veg­e­tar­ian en­trees, and I re­mem­ber sit­ting in a meet­ing with 35 peo­ple. Binkle was there. He had one en­tree that was $2.25 per item, and our re­im­burse­ment was less than the cost of the meal,” Beck said. “Ev­ery meal that we sold, we were los­ing money.”

When in­formed of the charges against Binkle by a Times re­porter, Beck said he felt vin­di­cated.

“You have ab­so­lutely made my af­ter­noon,” Beck said.

Binkle re­mains em­ployed as an ad­junct culi­nary in­struc­tor at the Col­lege of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, ac­cord­ing to a spokesman for the school. He has been em­ployed there since Au­gust 2009 and is sched­uled to teach a class in the fall.

While they de­clined to com­ment on the crim­i­nal charges, school nu­tri­tion ad­vo­cates praised Binkle’s work in Los An­ge­les, say­ing he did his best to pro­vide health­ful food to hun­dreds of thou­sands of school­child­ren.

“David worked hard to im­prove the menus, the in­gre­di­ents, the pre­sen­ta­tion and the stu­dent nu­tri­tion ex­pe­ri­ence,” said Matthew Sharp, a long­time school nu­tri­tion ad­vo­cate who has worked ex­ten­sively with Los An­ge­les schools.

Beck said he still can’t be­lieve it took six years, and out­side in­ter­ven­tion by pros­e­cu­tors, to get to the bot­tom of the con­duct he un­cov­ered long ago.

“All these in­ter­nal con­trol en­ti­ties that were sup­posed to be ex­er­cis­ing in­ter­nal con­trol were not do­ing it,” he said.

“I brought it to their at­ten­tion, and they did noth­ing about it.”

Pablo Martinez Mon­si­vais AP

DAVID BINKLE has pre­vi­ously said he was “frus­trated and baff led” by the ac­cu­sa­tions.

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