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Firm Says It Has No Pay Record on College Crew

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a growing controversy over possible misuse of federal funds, a West Los Angeles business owner said Friday that she hired Cal State Northridge laborers to move office furnishings last fall but does not have a record of paying them because she never received an invoice.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is investigating allegations that the Cal State Northridge employees were paid for the work from disaster relief funds earmarked for campus earthquake repairs. The workers were referred to the job at Office Future Systems, the firm’s owner said, by Northridge President Blenda J. Wilson’s husband, Louis Fair Jr.--the company’s executive vice president.

Wilson, who is traveling with her husband in Africa, called for an internal investigation Wednesday into her husband’s dealings, as well as into allegations that some Cal State workers were paid with FEMA funds for overtime they did not work.

FEMA officials this week requested documents related to the office move, and have interviewed campus workers. The university is reviewing payroll records for the last two years.

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Northridge Provost Louanne Kennedy spoke to Wilson on Thursday but said the matter could not be immediately resolved by telephone.

“I wish it were that simple,” Kennedy said. “It’s not a yes-or-no answer.”

Wilson returns to Los Angeles on Monday.

Beverly Hawkins, owner of Office Future Systems, called the controversy a “tempest in a teapot.” Hawkins said Fair is an employee who owns no stock in the company, which specializes in reorganizing financially troubled businesses.

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“Dr. Fair’s being married to Blenda Wilson had nothing to do with the move,” she said. “I took bids from several groups. He wouldn’t have stood to benefit because it is not his company.”

Fair, who has a doctorate in education from Northern Illinois University, was director of City Airport in Detroit. He moved to Los Angeles after his wife became president of Cal State Northridge in 1992. Hawkins said he has worked at Office Future for about two years.

The company has a recent history of not paying its workers or its rent on time, according to court records and several former employees.

At least four complaints have been filed against Office Future through the labor commissioner’s office, said Tom Grogan, assistant chief for the commissioner.

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FEMA began looking into Cal State Northridge’s management of federal disaster relief money after a former campus employee called the agency’s fraud hotline two weeks ago. Desmond Cerceo, 31, said he called FEMA after his complaints were ignored by campus police.

Cerceo and several other workers were laid off in March. After trouble with a supervisor, a restraining order was issued in Los Angeles Superior Court forbidding Cerceo to be within 50 yards of his former boss and co-workers.

Cerceo said he told FEMA investigators that members of his relocation crew were paid by crew supervisor Terri Sigrist for work they did not do. Cerceo said he was not part of the crew that moved Fair’s office furnishings but told FEMA he had heard about it from co-workers.

Sigrist said she remembers speaking to Fair about hiring workers for a private job but did not know at the time he was Wilson’s husband. She said that she mentioned the off-duty job to her crew--a common practice--but did not know whether they did the work or how they were paid. She said, however, they were not paid by Northridge or with FEMA money.

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