Did Inglewood Fudge Its Finances to Lure the Rams to the City?

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Yesterday NFL owners chose the as-of-yet unbuilt Rams stadium in Inglewood as the host site of Super Bowl LV in 2021. It was a proud moment for the city of just over 100,000 residents—once the home of the Lakers, now the future home of the Rams. But a whistleblower lawsuit from former budget and accounting manager Barbara Ohno argues that local officials led by Mayor James T. Butts engaged in “improper, illegal, and fraudulent accounting and financial practices” as they tried to lure the NFL to the city.

According to the lawsuit, Ohno was fired by the city after 10 months of service in retaliation for her attempts to “expose the irregularities and fraud practiced by the city.” On April 8, 2015, Ohno filed a formal internal complaint concerning a long list of questionable accounting practices employed by the city. In June, she was released from her probationary position. Prior to that, she alleges that her supervisor told her multiple times that Mayor Butts “considered her a ‘trouble maker,’ and that if she didn’t fall into line, she would lose her job.”

Among other things (a lot of other things), Ohno claims that the city of Inglewood used grant money earmarked for police and housing to pay for unauthorized “general fund purposes” in order to “make the City’s financial picture look better than it really was … to increase its chances of landing an NFL football team which would bring millions of dollars of revenue into the City.” Ohno alleges that to mask spending discrepancies, the city pooled both grant and revenue money into a single bank account.

More specific abuses detailed in the suit include the use of grant money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to pay workers whose positions had been eliminated, Section 8 vouchers being illegally given to city employees, and—most unusually—the use of city funds to pay for a Vegas vacation meant to placate one of the mayor’s most vocal critics.

For his part, Mayor Butts tells the LA Timesthat Ohno’s allegations are “baseless.” He says that Ohno’s “attempt[s] to connect her separation with the efforts to secure an NFL franchise are clearly contrived and false.” According to Butts, the NFL never asked the city for any financial data anyway. The proud mayor tells the Times that had anyone asked, they would have seen that Inglewood’s financial situation is in great shape. “The financial position of the city is robust and is a notable strength,” he says.

If, as Ohno alleges, that’s not quite the case, the city will need its new stadium to be every bit the economic windfall local officials are hoping it will be.

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