College files suit against contractors

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Citing legal questions, monetary compensation and issues of principle, the Southwestern College Governing Board voted unanimously to file lawsuits against three California construction and architecture firms that had been awarded contracts from the college during the administration of former Superintendent Raj K. Chopra. Following charges of bribery and corruption by the San Diego County District Attorney, the college severed ties with the firms, and none of them have worked on campus since January.

A board statement said litigation would “include challenges to the procurement of contracts related to the Corner Lot project,” and the conduct of the firms that were involved: Seville Construction Services (SCS), Echo Pacific Construction and architects Bunton Clifford Associates (BCA).

The $55 million project, the showpiece of SWC’s $389 million Proposition R construction bond, has been a lightning rod of controversy since its groundbreaking ceremony in October 2010. In the year and a half since then, no actual construction has occurred on the seven-acre lot. The empty parcel of bare ground has continued to garner unwanted attention from the citizens of South Bay, the media and the district attorney.

“We recognize the public interest surrounding this project,” said board president Norma Hernandez. “We also want to ensure we are fulfilling our duty to properly safeguard public funds in this project.”

Questions about litigation came to light in March, following the board’s public release of its internal investigation, which disclosed possibly illegal actions related to the construction firms’ original bids in 2010.

Seo Consulting was hired by SWC independent counsel Dannis Woliver Kelley in April 2011 to perform the investigation and forensic audit for the governing board. In the report, auditor Scott Seo noted several problems with the way the administration awarded bids, including a lack of transparency at every level, inadequate documentation to support why firms were selected, cost proposals based on varying project assumptions and numerous possible conflicts of interest.

Dr. Melinda Nish, who became SWC superintendent in January, said these issues provided the college even stronger reasons to sue.

“The principle is, that if contracts were not appropriately procured then there is an issue, and that could lead to questions of money,” she said. “So both issues are being looked at legally.”

Pasadena-based Seville Construction Services was awarded a $2.7 million contract in October 2009 to provide project management for the college’s entire Proposition R construction. Henry Amigable, the first project manager, only worked until December 2010, when Seville terminated him. In January, the San Diego County District Attorney’s office charged him with two felony counts, bribery and influence peddling, related to his actions at Sweetwater Union High School District. In March, he agreed to a plea bargain in which he would admit guilt to one misdemeanor charge and avoid prosecution for the felonies. He is due in court next month and still faces up to $1,000 in fines and six months in jail. Amigable is expected to testify against school board members and administrators also charged with crimes.

The governing board terminated its relationship with Seville and BCA in January.

BCA, which is headquartered in San Francisco, was awarded a $3.1 million contract in April 2010 to draft architectural plans for the entire corner lot development, including buildings and landscaping. The plans were awarded a Community College Facility Coalition (CCFC) Award of Excellence late in 2010. Paul Bunton, BCA’s president, appeared in court March 26 to plead guilty to one misdemeanor. He also faces a $1,000 fine and six months in jail.

Echo Pacific Construction, of Escondido, was awarded the construction management contract in July 2010. In January 2011, Chris Rowe, Echo’s president, hired Amigable to provide construction management for Echo Pacific’s Proposition AA projects on the SWC campus, including the new Time Out Café. Amigable is now on leave, according to an Echo spokesperson. In September, the governing board terminated Echo Pacific for convenience. Rowe has not been charged by the district attorney.

In November 2009, five months before BCA was awarded its contract, Bunton took Amigable and Nicholas Alioto, SWC’s former vice president of business and financial affairs on a well-documented Pebble Beach golfing vacation. Three weeks before Echo Pacific won its bid, Rowe joined Bunton, Amigable and Alioto on a Napa Valley trip won at a Southwestern College Education Foundation event. It cost Rowe $15,000.

A spokesman for Seville said that the board’s decision to take legal action against the firm came out of nowhere.

“As reported by The Sun on February 27, SWC and Seville were working toward a mutual solution to dissolve our contractual relationship,” he said. “After months of negotiations we thought we had reached a mutual agreement to dissolve the contract. Therefore we were shocked by the board’s choice to disregard its legal counsel and instead pursue legal action.”

The spokesman also questioned the board’s motivations for taking this step.

“We feel this sudden about-face is a disingenuous attempt to win political favor rather than doing what’s best for the college,” he said. “Additionally, we believe that any litigation will be a tremendous waste of taxpayer money, and that the time of SWC administrators could be better spent on seeing the improvements to the college come to fruition.”

Bunton, whose plea in part read, “I paid for e-mails and entertainment for Southwestern College officials. My actions triggered reporting responsibilities by these officials under the rules [of the]Fair Political Practices Commission. We are cooperating with the D.A.’s office and working with school administrators throughout California in the hope of making sure everyone knows about essential reporting laws.”

Despite repeated calls and messages, Echo Pacific executives refused to comment.

For legal reasons, the governing board declined to expand on its original statement.

The spokesman said that Seville stands by its belief that litigation is detrimental to all parties involved.

“SCS has always operated and acted in good faith throughout our relationship with the district, and we have proactively assisted in the investigations by Seo Consulting as well as the D.A.’s office,” he said. “The board’s decision to not seek a mutual resolution can only prolong the negative impact on the college and community.”

In March, the board suspended all work on the corner lot, pending an update to the college’s educational and long-range master plans. In addition, the board plans to complete construction 10 years earlier than original projections. Bidding for additional Prop R projects is scheduled to begin in April 2013.

With or without SWC, Seville will continue to provide project and construction management services.

“We are grounded in our unshakeable principles,” the spokesman said, “and we will continue to be steadfast in our commitment to providing high quality services, operating with integrity in all our dealings, delivering customer satisfaction and achieving excellence for our clients.”

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