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Colleges bar contractor over poor work, billing problems

The governing board of the Los Angeles Community College District voted Wednesday to sever ties, at least temporarily, with an Irvine contractor accused of submitting fraudulent claims on construction projects at two campuses and performing substandard work at one of them.

FTR International will be barred from doing business with the district for five years after the Board of Trustees agreed with the findings of a hearing committee that the firm misrepresented work on its $48-million contract to build the Allied Health and Science Center at Los Angeles Valley College and the Health and PE Center at Los Angeles Mission College.

An earlier version of this article misidentified Miguel Santiago, president of the Los Angeles Community College District's board of trustees, as Miguel Santana.

Both projects figured prominently in a Times series last year detailing cost overruns, delays, shoddy work and mismanagement in the district's $5.7-billion campus rebuilding program.

"Today's action to fire a major building program contractor strikes a blow against shoddy work," board President Miguel Santiago said during a meeting at Los Angeles Harbor College. "This contractor's actions were inexcusable and debarring them from further work will also send a message to every contractor on the program that we expect the best work possible for our nine campuses."

The Allied Health complex was found to have severe water leaks and other construction defects when it opened in August 2008, disrupting the work of faculty and students. The district also accused FTR of submitting a fraudulent form to state officials in June 2009, certifying that all work on the Allied project had been completed when more than 1,000 parts of the job remained incomplete.

The district accused FTR International of filing a fraudulent payment application seeking $864,082 for work that had not been performed at Mission College's fitness center, according to board documents.

FTR and its owner and chief executive Nizar Katbi have rebutted all of the allegations, arguing that there was no evidence to support the charges. In a brief submitted to the hearing committee, FTR asserted that in submitting the payment application, it was complying with instructions from the district's staff so that it could be paid for other outstanding work.

The company said it acted based on "good faith" that the project was 100% complete, and it maintained that the defects in the Allied Health complex were performed by subcontractors and resulted from a faulty design for which it was not responsible.

"It's a travesty," FTR attorney Theresa Traber said after the board's action. "The Los Angeles Community College District approved everything Mr. Katbi and FTR did and now they're going to scapegoat him by saying he's to blame."

She said the company is going to file a court challenge on the grounds that the findings were not supported by the evidence and that the committee hearing violated due process.

The committee agreed that the actions of others may have led to some of the problems, but found FTR to be untrustworthy.

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