As part of its push to build 80 new schools and expand 79 others, the Los Angeles school board Tuesday approved a $36.5-million contract for giant construction firm Tutor-Saliba to build a high school in the San Fernando Valley. The contract was awarded despite concerns about the firm's trustworthiness raised by the Los Angeles Unified School District's office of the inspector general.
It was the third multimillion-dollar public works contract approved for Tutor-Saliba by Los Angeles officials in a week.
The others, a $33-million airport contract and an $18-million sewer plant job, were awarded by the administration of Mayor James K. Hahn. In those cases, citizen commissions appointed by the mayor overrode concerns expressed by some airport and public works staff members about the firm's business practices. Tutor-Saliba and its president, Ronald N. Tutor, have been financial backers of Hahn's campaigns.
Four school board members voted for the contract without public discussion, but by the time of the vote, David Tokofsky, Julie Korenstein and Genethia Hudley-Hayes had left the meeting.
Although Tutor-Saliba was the low bidder last year to build a high school for 2,100 students at a former Gemco store site in Panorama City, the district's inspector general's office raised concerns that led to a fitness hearing in November.
The concerns centered on charges that Tutor-Saliba had cheated the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on construction of Los Angeles' subway. The MTA won a multimillion-dollar Superior Court judgment against Tutor-Saliba last year after charging that the contractor had submitted false claims and used fronts instead of legitimate minority contractors. The San Francisco city attorney's office recently filed a similar lawsuit in regard to Tutor-Saliba's work at San Francisco International Airport. Tutor-Saliba disputes the allegations and has appealed the MTA verdict.
In their report to the school board, district staffers who conducted the hearing adopted Tutor-Saliba's view of why it lost the MTA case. Chief facilities executive Jim McConnell wrote in a memo: "The panel is of the opinion that the heavy sanctions levied by the trial judge [are] a result of Tutor's trial and discovery strategy and [do] not reflect on its trustworthiness."
In sanctioning Tutor, Superior Court Judge Joseph Kalin observed: "There has been intentional withholding, concealment and destruction of documents by [Tutor-Saliba] and its attorneys."
Kalin terminated Tutor's lawsuit alleging underpayment against the MTA and allowed an MTA countersuit to proceed, but left it to a jury to decide how much the company owed.
The school district hearing panel cited the high marks Tutor-Saliba has received as the builder of other public works projects, including the recently finished Alameda Corridor, which connects the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to rail yards near downtown.