State auditors have urged the Los Angeles Community College District to seek a criminal investigation into allegations that the selection of an inspector general to police the district’s troubled construction program was rigged.
Jeffrey Brownfield, chief auditor for state Controller John Chiang, told the district’s Board of Trustees that an independent probe was needed to determine how the district allegedly violated its own bidding rules in choosing someone with no experience in audits or investigations over higher-rated applicants.
The district created the inspector general’s office last year to investigate possible fraud and corruption in the $5.7-billion program to rebuild its nine aging campuses.
Brownfield recommended a criminal inquiry while briefing the trustees Wednesday night on an audit of the construction program that Chiang released last week. The audit cited “possible malfeasance” in the hiring of Christine E. Marez as inspector general.
“We’d recommend an investigation by the district attorney, the attorney general or the county grand jury,” Brownfield said. “Something independent.”
Board members did not appear receptive to the suggestion and took no immediate action on it.
Kelly Candaele demanded to see evidence that the selection process was “rigged to help one firm over another.”
“That’s why we’re asking the district to investigate further,” auditor Andrew Finlayson replied.
District Chancellor Daniel LaVista also resisted the idea of a criminal investigation. “Given what I know, I do not believe there is sufficient information to take us to that place,” he said.
Scott Svonkin, one of two people who joined the seven-member board in July, was the only trustee to speak in favor of an independent investigation, though not necessarily a criminal one.
“The chancellor and those that continue to make excuses are doing a real injustice to the reform efforts we are working on,” Svonkin said.
Miguel Santiago, the board president, appointed Trustees Steven Veres and Mona Field to study the auditors’ findings.
Chiang could refer the inspector-general issue for investigation on his own, but said in an interview that he would wait to see what the college board decided.
The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office investigates allegations of official corruption only in response to a formal request, a staff attorney said.
The auditors were invited to Wednesday’s special board meeting to discuss Chiang’s findings that the district had inappropriately spent $140 million in construction funds. In the audit, Chiang challenged the use of construction money to pay for public relations and public art and criticized a “passive, perfunctory and ineffective” citizen oversight system, as well as the selection of the inspector general.
The board awarded the position to Marez’s newly formed company, Policy Masters. From 1998 to 2003, Marez worked for a construction management firm owned by Art Gastelum, a leading campaign donor and fundraiser for the district’s elected trustees and a major contractor on the campus building program.
Finlayson told the board that Marez was not qualified for the position and that the initial selection committee scored her proposal second to last among 11 submitted. The district’s bidding rules, he said, required the contract to go to the highest scorer.
A second committee recommended Policy Masters as “far and ahead the best firm” but also forwarded Ernst & Young’s proposal “as a distant second choice.” LaVista recommended Marez’s company to the board, which approved the contract.
Marez has said she is qualified for the position and believed the selection process was proper.
LaVista said at the board meeting that he had discovered new information that cast doubt on the controller’s analysis of the initial ranking of applicants, and that Marez had actually scored in the top tier.
Hallye Jordan, a spokeswoman for Chiang, said LaVista’s presentation of a “second set of books … at the eleventh hour” raised a new set of “red flags” that the controller intended to examine.