Company Barred From Seeking L.A. Port Job

Times Staff Writer

Concluding that Harbor Commission President Nick Tonsich stands to benefit financially from his ties to an environmental firm, the Los Angeles city attorney on Thursday barred the company from competing for a $2-million port grant to reduce air pollution.

City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo also disqualified Tonsich from voting on whether to award a separate toxics cleanup contract to the company because it is a client of Tonsich’s law firm.

Delgadillo issued the 10-page legal opinion after Tonsich requested the review last month when questions were raised about his relationship to Advanced Cleanup Technologies Inc.


“It’s an enormous conflict of interest,” said Janet Gunter, a San Pedro activist who had complained in writing to Delgadillo.

As commission president, Tonsich played a leading role in negotiating the settlement of a lawsuit by environmentalists over pollution at a container terminal used by China Shipping.

The settlement approved by Tonsich required the Harbor Commission to create a $20-million air quality management fund to pay for projects to reduce air pollution.

One of the firms bidding for a $2-million grant from the fund is Advanced Cleanup Technologies Inc., which proposed to use a technology co-owned by Tonsich that would divert diesel emissions from ships and remove toxic chemicals.

“Because of your prior participation in establishment of the fund, any subsequent contract through use of that fund from which you would benefit would be prohibited,” Delgadillo wrote to Tonsich. “Therefore, the ACTI proposal may not be considered.”

The legal opinion is the latest official challenge to operations at the Port of Los Angeles. Federal and county grand juries are investigating contracting at the Harbor Department, and the port’s executive director, Larry Keller, resigned two weeks ago under a barrage of criticism, including complaints that he didn’t do enough to reduce pollution.


Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski had asked Delgadillo whether the entire Harbor Commission should be disqualified from acting on air pollution grants because one of the applications proposed to use the Advanced Marine Emission Control System that Tonsich helped developed and co-owns.

Miscikowski is chairwoman of a board that takes up issues when commissions are disqualified from acting.

The city attorney said that after Advanced Cleanup Technologies was out of the running, Tonsich and the commission should be able to consider other grant requests for the city’s Air Quality Management Fund.

However, Tonsich is still disqualified from considering a separate contract with the company for hazardous material remediation and cleanup services because he’s a partner in a law firm that represents Advanced Cleanup Technologies on other legal matters.

The environmental company, which paid Tonsich’s law firm more than $10,000 last year, was one of four firms recommended by the Harbor Department executive director in July to perform hazardous material remediation and disposal services on an as-needed basis.

Though Tonsich must recuse himself, the rest of the five-member commission can participate because his law firm will not get any payment as a result of the contract, Delgadillo concluded.


“The legal opinion is very helpful,” Miscikowski said. “It very clearly answers the questions about what law is triggered and how.”

Tonsich did not return calls for comment Thursday, and a vice president of the company declined to comment.

Tonsich had submitted a written notice in May that he planned to abstain from voting on the grant proposed for Advanced Cleanup Technologies, but Miscikowski had questioned whether his colleagues would then be allowed to award the grant to a firm using Tonsich’s technology.

Gunter said Tonsich was using his insider’s position on the negotiations to figure out a way to make money.

“How can you be involved legally in coming up with a settlement and then get involved in a business opportunity created by that settlement?” Gunter asked.

This is not the first time Tonsich has had to recuse himself from actions of the commission because of a potential conflict of interest.


He also has recently abstained from voting on matters involving the Harbor Department’s membership in the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority, which awarded Tonsich’s law firm a contract to provide the agency with legal representation.

Tonsich has been a major political fundraiser for Mayor James K. Hahn, who appointed him to the harbor panel in 2001.

The Times reported Sept. 11 that the city attorney’s office has also launched an inquiry to determine whether Tonsich violated ethics laws by holding a fundraiser for Hahn that was attended by firms with recent or pending business before the Harbor Commission.