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Times community college investigation unearths shameful waste

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"It's just sad."

That's what East Los Angeles College student George Escobar had to say as we looked in the direction of a new clock tower that was built crooked and had to be fixed at an additional cost of $157,000.

Sad, outrageous, scandalous, shameful. You could pick any of those words, or all of them, to describe the waste and abuse documented in a weeklong Times series about the Los Angeles Community College District's $5.7-billion building program.

Reporters Gale Holland, Michael Finnegan and others have been turning over rocks for a year and a half, looking at how billions in tax dollars from voter-approved bond measures are being spent, and worms might be crawling up your legs as you read this.

Near the formerly crooked clock tower on the East L.A. campus, heating and cooling equipment was installed upside-down. A ramp for the disabled was too steep for wheelchairs. Bonehead moves like that drove construction costs from $28 million to $43 million.

"But you should talk to my friend Nancy," Escobar told me. "She is really, really, really angry."

Escobar, 24, who's studying to be a court interpreter and takes the bus to and from school to save money, called Nancy Honorato on his cellphone.

"Meet me at the Spot," he told his fellow student.

Honorato, 21, wants to be a children's social worker. When she showed up, she was carrying a copy of The Times

"I was shocked," Nancy said. "I just think it was pathetic to take all of that time to make something that didn't even pass inspection."

She was speaking of the clock tower, but she could have been talking about screw-ups on several other campuses in the Los Angeles Community College District.

Sure, there have been solidly built, badly needed projects, too. But the new health center at Valley College had bad plumbing, cracked floors, loose ceiling panels and leaky windows.

At West Los Angeles College, $39 million was spent on buildings that couldn't be completed when money ran out.

At Valley College, a theater was renovated for $3.4 million and then scheduled for demolition when officials decided to build a new one.

At L.A. City College, $1.8 million was spent on an architectural design for a fitness center, but the school president decided instead to build the center on the other side of campus, so architects were paid $1.9 million for a new design.

Throughout this debacle, costs were often doubled because the district hired workers whose job was to hire workers. The bill for that kind of nonsense was in the millions.

It was a feast. A picnic.

And the following will not surprise you:

Contractors and labor unions donated to district trustees. Contractors and labor unions got jobs.

Contractors and labor unions donated to support bond measures. Contractors and labor unions got jobs.

Like vultures, some of the most politically connected players in L.A. swooped in and got fat contracts despite past investigations into their dealings. One player who got a piece of the action pleaded guilty last December to a misdemeanor conflict-of-interest charge involving jobs in another school district — Los Angeles Unified.

As for the genius the college district hired to keep an eye on how the $5.4 billion got spent — Larry Eisenberg — you know you're in trouble when your oversight guy approves funds for a video biography of himself, complete with childhood photos and a soundtrack.

If, like me, you find it difficult to get interested in elections for community college trustees, read this series and you might feel differently. In fact, there's an election this Tuesday, with four trustee seats up for grabs.

One of the most astounding aspects of the series is that, as my colleagues have pointed out, only one trustee, Georgia Mercer, has responded in any depth to questions. Not that she's done much other than defend the district.

Here's a story about a scandalous lack of oversight on their watch — with staff, taxpayers and students all getting stiffed, even as student fees are being increased — and the elected officials in charge of the mess don't care to comment?

Actually, Los Angeles Community College District Chancellor Daniel LaVista might have been wise to keep his mouth shut, too, because here's part of what he had to say in an official statement after the first two parts of the series:

"After ignoring the good news of the program for years, The Times spent 20 months on this investigation and now picks at a few issues in what appears to be a sensationalist series published right before trustee elections. The timing is suspect, and the reporting is one‐sided. So far, we are sorely disappointed."

He's sorely disappointed?

I'll be disappointed if he's still on the payroll by week's end.

The district's own bond counsel concluded that millions of dollars had been spent in violation of state law, and LaVista is disappointed in The Times?

At L.A. City College on Friday morning, the day The Times ran the story of the construction disaster on that campus, I bumped into music teacher Wesley Abbott, and he wasn't surprised that his school had found its way into The Times stories.

"I knew we'd make it," Abbott said, noting the comedy of errors involving a parking garage and rooftop athletic field, still under construction, that has risen in cost from $42 million to $51 million. "I may not be in construction," Abbott said, "but I'm not stupid."

Another music teacher chimed in:

"We're not surprised or shocked, but we're very embarrassed."

steve.lopez@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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