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Trouble on the Iowa Part II

A Story of Betrayal and the Alias of Robert Kent

By Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor

In the previous edition, Random Lengths [Oct. 2, 2014 edition] reported on the contents of an exchange of emails between the Pacific Battleship Center’s former vice president of development, Patrick Salazar and the Port of Los Angeles community affairs director Theresa Adams Lopez.

The exchange highlighted a number of allegations including environmental abuses, possible lease violations with the port and turmoil within the ranks of the Pacific Battleship Center’s volunteers and hourly workers.  Those emails did not just reflect the experience of a single individual, but multiple individuals who documented their own personal experiences aboard the USS Iowa.

The Pacific Battleship Center has officially denied these allegations. (See the “Letters to the Editor” on page 9 of this issue.)

For Random Lengths, the most compelling part of this story, beyond the wage theft and lease violation allegations, were the stories regarding the removal of key personnel, the poor treatment of volunteer workers and the general impression that the executive management — most of whom reside out of town and out of the state — held a certain disdain for San Pedro.

When the USS Iowa officially opened in 2012, the speed in which it went from proposal to reality was breathtaking. Typically, acquiring a battleship museum requires years of laying the groundwork for political support, not only in the host state but the state of the ship’s namesake.

The Pacific Battleship Center was formed in 2009. By 2011, the Pacific Battleship Center had the support of the state legislatures of Iowa and California, the Los Angeles City Council, all the Harbor Area neighborhood councils and the Port of Los Angeles Harbor Commission, which had initially been very skeptical when the idea was first proposed. The new nonprofit organization was even able to go through every feasibility study and every stage of the environmental impact studies at a speed unheard of in San Pedro. This, despite nagging questions about the Pacific Battleship Center’s ability to finance the endeavor and the ability of the old battleship to draw enough visitors every year to make the naval museum self-sustainable.

In light of the recent allegations outlined in the emails, Random Lengths decided to revisit the origins of the Pacific Battleship Center and the arrival of USS Iowa.

The Arrival of the USS Iowa to Fanfare and Fireworks
The Pacific Battleship Center was hardly six months old before the fresh faced, smooth talking president of the nonprofit was quoted in the Daily Breeze challenging San Pedro residents to prove how much they want the ship in the Los Angeles Harbor:

“I think the people of San Pedro, if they want this ship, need to convey that to the port commissioners,” said the Pacific Battleship Center president, Robert Kent.

Kent was already becoming a recognized figure in the Harbor Area as he ramped up the effort to bring the USS Iowa to San Pedro. The Orange County-based, self-employed contractor, had seemingly came out of nowhere in 2010. He began raising the interest level for bringing a monument of the Harbor Area’s naval history to the Los Angeles Waterfront.

A clean-cut, suited and booted Kent presented a simple pitch that would neatly align with the goals and interests of the Los Angeles Waterfront: Bring to the harbor a tourist draw to further San Pedro’s ambition to become a destination town. The proposal would cost zero taxpayer dollars and there would be nothing but profit to gain in acquiring that floating piece of history. The USS Iowa, as Kent would note during a Northwest San Pedro Neighborhood Council presentation in August 2010, “is a piece of history that our children would be able to touch and to hold instead of just reading about it in a book.”

The plan may have sounded too good to be true, but it had enough backers, even at this point, to look like the real deal. Early on, the Pacific Battleship Center had Harbor Area veterans such as Bryan Moss who served on the USS Iowa during the Korean War and the grandson of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, H. Delano Roosevelt. Kent also had on board two fundraisers: one for the West Coast and the other from Iowa.

Moss and Roosevelt began reaching out to Harbor Area Neighborhood Councils, city councils members and every locally elected official at every level of government.

By the end of the summer, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously voted to bring the USS Iowa battleship to the Port of Los Angeles. The push to bring the battleship had gained so much momentum that it seemed like fait accompli.

Sure, the Pacific Battleship Center was in competition with a group in Northern California, but with the momentum behind Southern California, that group felt almost like a non-entity.

Officials at the Port of Los Angeles, judging from their earlier moves when the USS Iowa proposal was first presented to them, weren’t convinced that the battleship would do what Kent was saying it would in making San Pedro a tourist destination.

Indeed, the Pacific Battleship Center still had to complete a feasibility study and an Environmental Impact Report.

By Christmas 2011, the Los Angeles City Council, the harbor commission and the Navy had agreed to give the Los Angeles Harbor Area the battleship.

“The whole waterfront plan really comes together” if the USS Iowa project is approved, Kent was quoted as saying at the time.

Kent argued that with it located at Berth 87, the battleship would be a key marketing focus for the waterfront since it would be visible from the Vincent Thomas Bridge and Harbor Freeway.

Typically speaking, floating battleship museums do well at being a complement to a tourist destination, not the focus of a place aiming to be tourist destination. Indeed, a port study suggested that the battleship may draw 188,000 visitors per year—a study the Pacific Battleship Center vigorously disputed. Nevertheless, it is likely this study is what motivated Port officials to require a $15 million fund to cover potential shortfalls over the first three years of the ship’s operation as a floating museum.

Panicking supporters, from then Councilwoman Janice Hahn on down said it would have killed the entire proposal.

“I understand that if the resolution you have before you today passes, this will probably torpedo the ship and this project,” Hahn was quoted telling the Harbor commissioners. “This battleship has gone through wars and probably through some storms. But it’s never gone through the bureaucracy it’s going through now with the port staff today.”

By May 2012, the Los Angeles Harbor Commissioners approved the final lease agreement to bring the battleship to the Port of Los Angeles permanently. Included in the lease agreement were provisions for the Pacific Battleship Center to pay into an escrow fund $5 million that would cover towing the ship elsewhere, should it fall below 100,000 visitors a year. The center projected the ship would see 400,000 visitors each year, but as of this year it has fallen short by half that number.

Origins of the Pacific Battleship and the Betrayal

With almost 20 years experience in various capacities at the Vallejo, Calif.-based Historic Ships Memorial at Pacific Square, Merylin Wong has worked to acquire and preserve United States naval history for future generations.

“It’s the result of people joining the organization and then leaving with enough information to disrupt their efforts,” she said, when asked about why her organization lost out acquiring the USS Iowa.

It has been three years since the US Navy awarded the USS Iowa to the Pacific Battleship Center, but Wong and her organization are still smarting from the betrayal. It was only after speaking with Wong that it became clear that efforts to secure the USS Iowa on the West Coast were a long term effort.

Wong identified Jonathan Williams as one of the orchestrators of the betrayal. Williams became a volunteer with the Historic Ships Memorial at Pacific Square in 2002. Not long after he came aboard the organization, Williams introduced his friend Robert Daniels to Wong and the rest of the board. But even at that time, Daniels was not a new name to Wong.

“Robert Daniels reached out to me independently years before we met in person.” Wong said.

The seasoned battleship nonprofit head noted these kinds of projects always draw attention. Anyone wanting national exposure would be eager to associate with an endeavor such as this.

“It’s a source of pride for many Americans,” Wong explained. “We’re honoring veterans and educating the public about the importance of our sea services and contributions of our men and women in the services.”

The Historic Ships Memorial had worked with the California congressional delegation, including Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and their Bay Area delegation, which had appropriated the $3 million needed just to move the ship from Rhode Island to California in 2001.

After a few years, Daniels and Williams were elevated to positions of significant responsibility that put them in contact with the organization’s donors and contacts. Wong said they worked in this capacity for more than a year.

When Williams and Daniels left the Historic Ships Memorial, the organization suddenly saw the pair with people that split with the organization years previously. Wong believes that Williams and Daniels had someone close to the Navy panel passing on to them vital information.

“They are the only people who I see could have conceivably shared this information would have been someone in the Navy who was a part of the evaluation team,” Wong said. “We would have to submit to them updates and we disclosed the identity of these fundraisers. And the person we suspected of having something to do with it was fired. Anyway, it was very painful loss for us.”

Wong explained that Williams and Daniels were a part of her organization when they had assembled a capable engineering team that had qualified and priced out all of the work of repairing and renovating the battleship.

“You can imagine someone who was working with you for awhile and had all of that information available to them. Everyone was trusting that this was a united effort… It was very upsetting and very disappointing,” Wong said.

Wong noted that arranging the financing to preserve an old decommissioned ship, locating a berth and turning it into a museum can take as long as a decade, sometimes two decades to complete.

“When there is an ongoing effort to launch an endeavor such as this, you respect the sole party working on it. It would be hard enough for one organization to try to do it. But when you have competition, it dilutes the effort,” Wong said. “The fundraisers we had once worked with wound up working for them. As far as I could tell, there was no way that this new effort, because these people severed their relationship with us, would have known about these fundraisers unless somebody told them.

When the Pacific Battleship Center emerged as a rival, the man at the helm was Robert Daniels except, his name wasn’t Robert Daniels. Wong saw his picture in a newspaper above the name Robert Kent.

“That’s how we knew that he [Robert Kent] was Robert Daniels,” Wong said recalling her organization’s initial amazement at the discovery.

“We realized then that they [Williams and Kent] had possibly entered our group to simply gain knowledge and information with a desire to perhaps displace us as the leadership,” Wong said. “But you know, they are all Southern Californians.”

Indeed, this was true about the Pacific Battleship Center group with the exception of a few key executives, such as Williams and a few board members, Southern Californians had the largest connection with the Long Beach Naval Shipyard.

Manna from Heaven
The Pacific Battleship Center didn’t just have grassroots support going for it. Incredible timing also played a critical role. The year 2010 was the year U.S. Census completed its survey. Upon completion, this nation’s political boundaries were redrawn to reflect the changes in population.

Combine that with the phenomena of state legislators coming to Los Angeles to run for city council to lengthen their careers in politics, the resignation of Rep. Jane Harman, and the ambition of Los Angeles Councilwoman Janice Hahn, the nonprofit organization’s USS Iowa proposal was literally a “godsend” for multi-term politicians running for a different office.

In 2011, at every forum and every gathering a candidate spoke, potential voters heard about what they were doing to ensure that the USS Iowa’s permanent home was at the Port of Los Angeles.

The Historic Ships Museum and Pacific Square, Merylin Wong said of the time:

“It was the Navy’s decision, [but] if you have a congresswoman going to bat for you and contacting the Secretary of the Navy….. We went as far as we could [but] that’s what the former LA Councilmember did. She was out there. She was in front of the Port of Los Angeles, she was rallying for them. That’s political support.”

Hahn wasn’t the only one. Sen. Warren Furutani, with his remaining days in the state legislature as he ran to replace Hahn on the Los Angeles City Council, marshaled some 30 colleagues to support a resolution to bring the USS Iowa to Los Angeles. The legislature seemed to have all but forgotten about the Bay Area group competing for the USS Iowa. Essentially, the Pacific Battleship Center benefited from a perfect storm of aligned interests.

Fearless Leader Disappears into the Sunset
It took more than magic and sleight of hand to build the Pacific Battleship Center and accomplish its mission in such a short period of time. It took a charismatic salesman with the ability to bring people together for a common cause. Robert Kent was that person.

Two years after the floating naval museum open, Kent was gone. Not even a press release marked his departure—a sharp contrast to how he burst on to the scene like cannon fire in 2010.

In April 2013, the Pacific Battleship Center issued a strange press release announcing organizational changes in which Jonathan Williams was promoted to president and chief operating officer.

Buried in the press release was the apparent shifting of Kent to director of external affairs, a position in which he was charged with the responsibility of managing and building relationships with key donors and funding bodies. A year later, Kent sailed off into the sunset with a rumored six-figure severance package [reportedly paid monthly at more than $10,000] — rumored because the battleship center executive board members won’t discuss personnel matters.

Patrick Salazar, who started off as a volunteer at the Pacific Battleship Center before he was elevated to the position of vice president of development in 2014, worked with Kent in his final year with the Battleship Center.

“Robert Kent… was booted,” Salazar said. “Jonathan made a bunch of allegations to the board about mismanagement of company funds, living on board with his girlfriend and his forcing people to salute him as if he were a navy captain.”

Salazar recalled his initial meetings with Kent when he was doing work as a fundraiser on a contract basis. Salazar said he immediately noted the dysfunction at the senior staff level of the organization.

“There was no communication,” Salazar explained. “You can’t raise money if the there’s no communication. They didn’t need a grant writer or a fundraiser like myself. They needed a therapist.”

When Williams asked for his opinion on Kent’s functioning as vice president of external affairs, Salazar gave him this assessment. Williams repeated that assessment along with the other allegations to the board.

Interestingly, Salazar is not alone in this characterization of Kent and Williams’ relationship. Wong at the Historic Ships Memorial at Pacific Square had the same impression of Kent and Williams.

“I think the first couple of visits early on when we first met Daniels [Robert Kent], he made it clear to us that he was not going to report to Jonathan,” Wong recounted. “I said [to myself], ‘oh boy, that’s trouble.’ He’s just came in and [now] you’re telling us you don’t want to work for him. We’re not even hiring and you’re already jockeying for a job?

“That’s why it was kind of amusing that the two of them would get together in your area. We predicted there would be a fall out between the two of them, which I think already happened. They are very different in their education and ability to articulate and present themselves.”

Wong described Robert Daniels [Kent] as the sales person who “comes off as smooth and can talk well.”

“Jonathan is your operator that hides behind your skirt,” Wong explained. “That’s the way I looked at him. But he’s there now and he’s in charge and he made it that way. I’m sure he engineered the whole thing that way. Knowing what I know about him. He used to brag about not having a formal education and getting as far as he did. That’s the kind of person we’re dealing with.”

In the Wake of the Battleship
Allegations of mismanagement on multiple levels at the Pacific Battleship Center are not without merit. Since the publication of “Trouble on the Iowa,” in the previous edition,  Random Lengths has heard more accounts of local groups and individuals who have made donations to the Pacific Battleship Center but were virtually ignored. We also heard stories from former volunteers and interns who validated Random Lengths News’ reporting of the treatment of volunteers and hourly workers, and the firing of valued managers for perceived non-performance related reasons.

Regardless of how the USS Iowa came to San Pedro, no one in the Harbor Area wants to get rid of the floating museum. If nothing else, this moment in time is an opportunity to remake the Pacific Battleship Center into a stronger piece of the waterfront puzzle that makes San Pedro a destination town. But as long as the personnel working at the helm of the Pacific Battleship Center look upon the local community and its local donors of both time and money with disdain, some believe the Port of Los Angeles really has a problem on its hands.

However, the source of some of its funding is another complication to this story that comes in part three of the “Trouble on the Iowa” saga.

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