|Office of the Chancellor / Public Affairs||
Monday, May 10, 2004
Los Angeles Daily News 5-9-04
Bonded by school ties?
Contractors who already have agreements worth more than $250 million to build and modernize Los Angeles Unified schools -- and stand to get much more -- contributed nearly a quarter of the campaign funds to pass the latest $3.87 billion bond measure, a Daily News analysis found.
News of the contractors' financing of Measure R comes as allegations of a "pay-to-play" system at City Hall are being investigated by county and federal authorities.
However, Los Angeles Unified School District officials say they were scrupulous in making sure none of the campaign contributions was tied to pending work.
Superintendent Roy Romer said he personally seeks most of the money and takes precautions to prevent anyone from getting special influence over the district.
"I know there are all kinds of crosscurrents in this town. One way to keep (contractors) from having leverage is to raise the money yourself," Romer said. "It was one of the most critical things to the life of the district, and I know the importance of the guy running the place asking (for the contributions)."
Romer -- a former Colorado governor and head of the Democratic National Committee -- said he has no tolerance for any connection between contributions and decisions made by the district.
"I've been in politics 40 years, and I'm very strict in my habits of raising money."
Romer said the Measure R campaign staff was given orders not to ask for contributions from anyone with work pending before the district.
"Nobody is going to get any advantage in this system," he added. "I have billions at stake. I cannot and will not allow it to be tainted."
Campaign finance reports show 29 contractors contributed $361,000 of the $1.6 million to Measure R, which voters approved March 2, boosting the district's construction program to a record $10 billion. Those same 29 contractors already have contracts worth $256 million, district records show.
Unions and wealthy individuals, including billionaire and civic activist Eli Broad, were also among the large contributors.
LAUSD Inspector General Don Mullinax said that while the contractors' contributions "may appear improper" to the general public, there would have to be a showing that an actual conflict of interest had occurred.
"The question here is not who gave and how much, but were any of these contributions made as a quid pro quo?"
Darry Sragow, the consultant who managed the Measure R campaign and two earlier district bond campaigns, said he's never seen any evidence of "arm twisting" of contractors to make political donations.
"If I saw the remotest evidence of anything wrong, I'd walk away," Sragow said.
Sragow explained that people raising money for political campaigns have to tap into those who are "in the system."
"The dynamic is very, very simple. Most people have no interest in contributing to any kind of campaign. The people who contribute have some active interest in what the campaign is about.
"It's hardly a surprise the people involved on a day-to-day basis with the school district provide the money."
Glenn Gritzner, Romer's special assistant, said members of LAUSD's facilities staff, which oversees the school construction program, weren't allowed to raise campaign funds or provided with a list of contributors.
"They wouldn't have a guess" who contributed, he said.
Included in the bond campaign was a $2,125 contribution from Tom Rubin, the consultant to the School Construction Bond Citizens' Oversight Committee, charged with independent review of bond expenditures.
"There is no conflict between supporting building new schools and wanting the money spent in the wisest and most productive way."
Rubin said he looks for contracting improprieties "in a general sense," and that he has examined some specific cases.
"Nothing I ran into was there enough there that I felt there was something inappropriate going on."
Still, there are many close connections between the district and the contributors.
A contribution of $22,500 to Measure R was made by Parsons Brinckerhoff Construction Services Inc., whose regional office is in Orange. It is a division of Parsons Brinckerhoff Inc.
One of the company's vice presidents, James Delker, is among six Parsons Brinckerhoff Construction Services employees under a $2.4 million contract with LAUSD, district records show.
Delker, LAUSD's acting deputy chief facilities executive for existing facilities, said he learned about the contribution only after it was made, adding he doesn't have authority to alter the company's contract with LAUSD, though he does review the invoices.
"If (the contract) needed a change, that would be handled by the contracts division and the Orange office," Delker said. "I'm not authorized to make changes."
Parsons Brinckerhoff Construction Services officials could not be reached for comment.
Gateway Science & Engineering of Pasadena contributed $25,000 to the bond. Sources have told the Daily News the firm's president Art Gastelum was involved in an airport concession deal that's now a part of District Attorney Steve Cooley's criminal investigation into pay-to-play accusations.
Romer said he didn't personally request the contribution from Gastelum.
"There's no charge I've seen proven ... if someone wants to make contributions, I treat them as any other citizen."
Gastelum said the firm, which does work for LAUSD, made the contribution because "it's for kids. It's for schools."
"I expect to get nothing. I already have a contract. If I do good work, I expect to get more work."
Gastelum declined to discuss any investigation involving airport matters.
Ron Tutor, president of Tutor-Saliba Corp. in Sylmar, gave $15,000 to the bond. The firm has a $36 million contract to build a high school in the East San Fernando Valley.
Tutor said Romer called him for a contribution, and that he viewed it as a "community service."
"We're one of the largest businesses in the city. I grew up here. I went to Van Nuys High School. ... What possibly negative could there be in giving something to help?"
Tutor, whose firm has gotten involved in numerous contracting controversies and is now facing possible loss of the Van Nuys FlyAway contract because of allegations of shoddy work, said he won the work because he was the lowest bidder.
Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles nonprofit, nonpartisan group that studies campaign financing, said the public would expect that "those who benefit are the ones who give."
He said in the absence of public financing, there are few other options for paying to inform the public about bond issues.
The new bond adds as much as $60 a year per $100,000 of assessed property valuation. Property owners are now paying about $100 a year per $100,000 of assessed value as a result of the previous two bonds.
The bond calls for $1.9 billion to be used to construct up to 50 schools, and $1.6 billion to be spent on repairs.
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