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L.A. Community College District fires building program chief

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The board of the Los Angeles Community College District voted Wednesday to fire the head of its $5.7-billion construction program after a series of Times articles documented extensive waste in the rebuilding of the district's campuses.

Several dozen spectators burst into applause when board President Georgia Mercer announced that the seven trustees had voted unanimously in closed session to terminate Larry Eisenberg's employment contract, effective at the end of this week.

"It's time to move on in a new direction," Mercer said.

Eisenberg's deputy, Thomas Hall, will replace him on an interim basis as executive director of facilities planning and development for the nine-college district.

The six-part Times series, which concluded Sunday, reported that the district had squandered tens of millions of dollars in construction money, largely through poor planning and shoddy workmanship.

Among other examples, the series described how officials at West Los Angeles College spent $39 million to design and begin construction on four major buildings, only to abandon the projects when they realized there was too little money to finish them.

An additional $10 million was lost to mistakes in the management of a solar power initiative led by Eisenberg, who tried to brand the district as a world leader in environmentally friendly construction.

The wasted funds could have paid for new classrooms, laboratories and other college facilities.

In a brief telephone interview, Eisenberg declined to discuss what led to his firing.

"You guys have done your damage," he said.

The board launched the rebuilding effort in 2001 to replace or renovate aged and neglected buildings at all nine campuses. In a series of bond measures, Los Angeles voters agreed to pay higher property taxes for at least 50 years to finance the $5.7-billion program and repay the debt. With interest, the total cost to taxpayers is likely to reach $11 billion.

Eisenberg, 59, has been in charge of the program since 2003. A San Fernando Valley native with degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Texas, he had overseen public building programs in Wisconsin and Oregon before he was hired by the college district.

The trustees debated Eisenberg's fate behind closed doors at a student center at Harbor College in Wilmington. Eisenberg, for years a fixture at board meetings, was absent.

After the private session, the trustees heard from half a dozen speakers who scolded them for what they described as abysmal oversight of the rebuilding program.

Freddie McClain, 61, who teaches sociology at Trade-Technical College just south of downtown Los Angeles, told the board he was "totally embarrassed by the scandals and reckless behavior."

Eisenberg was "responsible for many of the mistakes and missteps," McClain said afterward in an interview, but the board "really dropped the ball."

"Their complacency helped create a lot of these problems," McClain said.

Several trustees vowed to tighten oversight of the program. Asked to explain their reasons for firing Eisenberg, they declined to comment, apart from saying they wanted to go in a new direction.

Kelly Candaele, a board member since 1999, expressed concern about a system of employing more than 200 construction program staff members by putting them on the payrolls of subcontractors. Those companies collected overhead expenses and profit for serving as employers of record for people whom, in many cases, they did not supervise.

The arrangements inflated staffing costs by at least $15 million, The Times found. Many of the subcontractors were donors to trustee election campaigns.

Candaele requested a review of whether the district had let some of the subcontractors "game the system," and whether it might recoup some of the millions of dollars they collected.

He also suggested curtailing the use of construction funds to pay for photo and video publicity projects.

During a presentation to the board, district Chancellor Daniel LaVista — even while vowing reforms — criticized The Times for what he described as unbalanced reporting that "improperly exaggerated" isolated problems, "serious as some of them may be."

LaVista also suggested that the district deserved credit for creating the position of inspector general last year to investigate allegations of waste, fraud and corruption.

The Times series reported that the inspector general, Christine E. Marez, had no experience as an independent auditor or investigator and had worked from 1998 to 2003 for Gateway Science & Engineering, a major contractor on the construction program.

Miguel Santiago, who was reelected as a trustee Tuesday, welcomed the chancellor's pledge to review ethics codes, contracting rules and other aspects of the program. "Everything's on the table," he said.

Trustee Tina Park also called for closer supervision of the program, saying, "We need to make our staff more accountable."

michael.finnegan@latimes.com

gale.holland@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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