Community college has helped Art and Michelle Gastelum get ahead. Way ahead.
The father and daughter own two of the companies that have profited from close relationships with the trustees of the Los Angeles Community College District, connections built on campaign money, a Times analysis found.
Companies working on the district’s construction program account for 44% of the $4.6 million contributed to trustees’ election efforts or to campaigns to pass construction bond measures since 2001. Contractors have been especially generous in support of the three bond measures. They donated nearly two-thirds of the $1.9 million spent to promote the biggest one, Measure J, which passed in 2008 and provided $3.5 billion for campus construction.
The No. 1 overall contributor, Sinanian Development, is the biggest contractor in the $5.7-billion construction program, with projects valued at $249 million. It has donated $89,500 to trustee and bond campaigns.
The second-largest donor, FTR International, is the No. 2 contractor, with $241 million in district business. The company and its employees have contributed $68,000.
The two Gastelums and their firms contributed a combined $55,650 to trustee and bond measure campaigns, more than some large corporations. The Gastelums’ companies have landed contracts with a total value of about $40 million.
Sinanian and FTR continued to receive contracts after becoming embroiled in disputes with the district over the quality of their work. Art Gastelum’s company had its contract renewed after the firm’s project director for the construction program was imprisoned in a corruption case involving a community college system in Texas.
Many of the contracts awarded under the L.A. program are for professional services not subject to strict competitive bidding, such as construction management.
Art Gastelum went into that field after a career as an influential political operative and lobbyist. For 18 years, he was an aide to Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.
Gastelum’s Gateway Science & Engineering is one of nine companies paid to manage construction at individual campuses. Each firm’s base fee is set at 6% of the total building costs for its campus.
Gateway was selected as project manager for Mission College over larger and more experienced firms. District Deputy Chancellor Adriana Barrera, who helped evaluate Gateway’s proposal while serving as Mission College president, said political money did not influence the process.
She said she favored the firm in part because “it was a small company, we were a small college.”
In 2003, a year after starting work at Mission College, Gastelum was identified as a subject of corruption investigations by Los Angeles County prosecutors and the FBI that focused in part on his role in the early stages of the Belmont Learning Complex, a school construction project that cost taxpayers more than $400 million and took 15 years to complete. Gastelum, a partner in the original consortium hired to build the school, denied wrongdoing and was never charged.
In 2005, the Gateway project director for Mission College, Louis Cruz, left the program and began serving a prison sentence in the Texas corruption case. He had pleaded guilty two years earlier but continued to work at Mission while awaiting sentencing.
In written responses to questions from The Times, Larry Eisenberg, head of the construction program, said the “district was unaware that Mr. Cruz had a legal problem in Texas until he resigned from his position.”
Eisenberg said he could not recall if he discussed the matter with Gastelum before Gateway’s contract was renewed.
Gastelum said his political connections and campaign contributions had nothing to do with his success in winning and retaining the contract, which was renewed again last month. “I don’t see what the problem is,” he said. “Don’t I have the right to support candidates of my choosing?”
Michelle Gastelum followed her father into the contracting business after a stint as a schoolteacher. Her firm, Summit Consulting and Engineering, has district contracts to coordinate the movement of workers and furniture, and to provide construction managers for the program.
In late 2008, she hosted campaign fundraisers for trustees Kelly Candaele and Nancy Pearlman at the downtown City Club. Invitees were asked to write checks of $1,000 to $5,000.
Candaele said by e-mail that he has “never been influenced as a board member by any campaign contributions.”
Pearlman said there was “nothing inappropriate” about the affair. “People were welcome to give money to my campaign,” she said. “There was no expectation that anything would come of it.”
Michelle Gastelum said neither campaign money nor her father’s connections helped Summit win contracts. “Nothing has been handed to me,” she said.
Sinanian Development, based in Tarzana, has obtained contracts to construct a library and classrooms at L.A. City College and a family and consumer studies center at Mission College, among other projects.
In 2008, as the trustees were considering another contract bid from the company, they directed district officials to look into complaints about Sinanian’s work, including its failure to meet deadlines, records show.
The company pledged to meet district performance standards and was awarded the contract, for which it submitted the lowest bid, according to minutes of trustee meetings.
About this time, Sinanian pumped more than $75,000 into one of the bond drives.
Trustee Georgia Mercer, one of those who expressed concerns about Sinanian’s performance, said in an e-mail that the company’s co-president, Sinan Sinanian, “assured us that his company was committed to improving.” The firm has since “performed in a very adequate manner,” Mercer said.
The district’s fight with FTR stems from a health and science complex it built at Valley College. In a lawsuit against the district, FTR claims it is owed $1 million. The district is demanding that the company pay $1.5 million to cover the cost of repairing defects in the buildings.
FTR’s chief executive, Nizar Katbi, said his firm was not responsible for the problems. Asked about his political donations, he said contractors were encouraged to contribute.
He recalled attending a fundraiser in Hollywood with scores of construction program vendors, trustees and other college officials.
“They asked all the contractors to come in,” Katbi said. He declined to elaborate.
Sinan Sinanian likened his contributions to an investment. “Any time there is a bond measure, you just contribute and hope that it comes back to help you in one way or another,” he said. “That’s the process of our government.”