Mayor James K. Hahn dismissed as nonsensical Wednesday any suggestion that campaign contributions from the firm Tutor-Saliba influenced its selection this week for a $33-million airport construction contract.
"That just makes no sense at all," Hahn told radio station KNX. "They were the low bidder. I think that when public funds are being expended, we've got to go with the best person who gives us the best work for the price."
The Times reported Wednesday that the Hahn administration had awarded the airport contract to the firm that Hahn, as city attorney, had helped block from another city project two years ago because of concerns about its business practices.
Since then, the firm has been found by a Superior Court judge to have submitted false claims to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. In addition, the company, which had contributed to Hahn campaigns in the past, became one of his major financial backers.
Hahn, who had been unavailable for comment, told a Times reporter Wednesday that airport staff members and commissioners -- not he -- made the decision to award the contract to Tutor-Saliba because they "believed that Tutor-Saliba could be selected for the job. Certainly, I know that questions have been raised about them," he said, citing the MTA case.
In that case, Tutor-Saliba was found to owe the transit agency tens of millions of dollars for submitting false claims for payments while building portions of the Los Angeles subway and using fronts posing as minority contractors to meet its minority contracting goals. Tutor-Saliba has appealed that verdict.
Hahn said Tutor-Saliba has built other projects without controversy.
"The projects I've been familiar with -- renovation of the Coliseum, completion of the Alameda Corridor -- I've been satisfied with," the mayor said. "Tutor-Saliba brought those in on time and under budget."
The contract award, made unanimously Tuesday by the city's Airport Commission, is for construction of a parking garage and shuttle bus terminal near the Van Nuys Airport to be used by LAX-bound travelers. Although Tutor-Saliba was the low bidder, some airport staff members raised questions about the company's fitness.
Airport Commission President Ted Stein reiterated Wednesday that neither Hahn nor anyone on the mayor's staff played a role in the contract award. He said he asked airport staff members, who assured him that they had not been pressured.
Hahn received at least $39,000 in campaign contributions during the 2001 mayor's race from Ronald N. Tutor, the president of Tutor-Saliba, or his employees and their spouses. Tutor personally gave another $75,000 to fund a last-minute mailer.
And last year, the firm gave $100,000 to Hahn's anti-secession effort.
In another development, Caltrans has scheduled a closed-door hearing today in Sacramento on a protest involving Tutor-Saliba filed by a rival bidder on a contract worth at least $177 million to upgrade approaches to the San Francisco Bay Bridge.
Times staff writer Beth Shuster contributed to this report.