Delays, controversy again stagger corner lot project

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For 50 years, the 2.6 acre patch at the northeast of Southwestern College has laid fallow, a vestige from the lima bean and horse ranch it once was. For the past decade it has become a killing field for SWC administrators and board members who get too wrapped in the often murky worlds of construction, politics and money.

And still the land sits empty as a new set of players settles in to try to make sense of the stalled project that led to so much upheaval at SWC last year.

Pasadena-based Seville Construction Services, chosen by a previous SWC administration and board to manage an ambitious new incarnation of the highly-visible “corner lot,” has pushed back the start date several times. Seville has become entangled in governing board politics, SWC contract troubles, love affairs, investigations, and was caught playing a personnel shell game as detailed in a Los Angeles Times investigative series.

In October 2009, Seville was awarded a $2.7 million contract – or 2.7 percent of the initial $100 million Phase I project costs – to provide program management and as-needed construction management services for the college’s Proposition R construction, projects funded by a voter-approved $389 million construction and modernization bond in 2008. Projected to be spread out over 23 years and five phases, the Prop. R work would be largest college building project in about 35 years. Of the $100 million slated for Phase I, the corner lot project was budgeted at $74 million.

A Slow – and Expensive – Start

In 2009 Seville managers projected work on the 110,000 square-foot corner lot to begin in “early 2011.” On December 11, 2009 Seville personnel presented a Program Management Update to the Prop R Facilities Steering Committee. They projected an official start date of April 2011.

In early 2010 SWC’s governing board approved a $55 million contract with San Jose-based BCA Architects to design the project. Plans are to create a striking new entry corridor into the campus, flanked by a new administrative building, food court, art gallery, bookstore, culinary arts program, continuing education facility, campus police station and wellness center designed with a Mayan theme. The start date was still April 2011.

At the November 22 Citizens’ Prop R Oversight Committee meeting, Seville had pushed back the projected start date to “summer 2011.”

According to SWC documents available on the college website, Seville representatives next met with SWC on March 23 at the CPOC meeting, and the new projected date to start construction was “early 2012.” Seville’s new project manager, Robert DeLiso, did not address the changed start date, but did comment on the construction’s end date, calling some of his company’s estimates “over-optimistic.”

“Well, the start dates are… there have been changes in the schedule,” DeLiso said after the meeting.

DeLiso noted the 2012 start date, but said he believed Seville would actually start construction earlier.

“I think toward the end of the year,” he said.

An unidentified Seville employee was present and said there were good reasons for the delay. He blamed the Division of the State Architect (DSA), the Sacramento-based state agency that must approve all public school construction projects.

“One of the things that Bob noted,” he said, “was that there were some unrealistic DSA review times built into the schedule. I think that’s the main culprit why.”

Repeated calls to DeLiso and Seville’s offices failed to uncover the employee’s identity. Seville’s chief information officer, Yohan S. Ruparatne, initially offered to provide that information but later refused to answer, citing a “strict media policy.”

A DSA official said her agency was not to blame for any delays by Seville and that the state architect’s office had not received anything from the SWC project until March 30, well after Seville’s initial start date.

Gretchen Zeagler, a spokesperson in DSA’s Sacramento office, said last week that DSA could not have been the culprit, since it had not started reviewing the architectural plans.

“The plans were submitted on March 30, 2011, and they were sent back for being incomplete,” she said. “Increment 1, the first half, was returned and accepted on April 18 and Increment 2 was accepted on April 27. The review is scheduled to begin on May 30, 2011. That’s the normal process.”

Noting the fact that the plans weren’t submitted until one week after the March 23 bond oversight committee meeting and that no one had filed one previously, Zeagler said she didn’t see how DSA could be held responsible for delays that had pushed back the corner lot project’s start date by almost a year.

“I’ve checked here and I’ve spoken with our San Diego branch manager,” said Zeagler. “He questions the whole blaming DSA thing. Those records that you see on our website are accurate – absolutely accurate.”

John Wilson’s Many Hats

Proposition R brought $389 million to Southwestern College’s table and one of the men with the most influence over the money, the project and those seeking to build it was John Wilson.

In his official role as director of operations, Wilson was instrumental in developing and passing Prop R. His position included overseeing all construction on the various SWC campuses. In doing so, he worked closely with former superintendent Dr. Raj K. Chopra and Nicholas Alioto, the former vice president of fiscal affairs.

At the time Seville was already on campus, overseeing much of the remaining work of the Proposition AA bond, an $89 million measure district voters passed in 2000. Wilson worked very closely with Henry Amigable, Seville’s program manager. According to an investigation published in the San Diego Reader, Wilson “initiated and signed off on the contract with Seville” to secure the company the Prop. R job.

On August 1, 2008, the San Diego Union-Tribune filed a story about how an “affair” between Wilson and governing board trustee Yolanda Salcido had driven an SWC vice president, Debra Fitzsimmons, to resign. By all accounts, the relationship continued at least through 2010, with Salcido refusing to recuse herself from any vote that impacted Wilson or the contractors he hired.

According to SWC’s human resources department, Wilson retired from SWC in December 2009. However, according to documents obtained by the Sun, Seville submitted monthly pay invoices to Wilson through March.

That same month, Amigable hired Wilson on an hourly basis as a program liaison to consult with Prop. R construction and Prop. AA work. Wilson earned $165 an hour – the same rate as Amigable – more than $25 an hour higher than Seville’s most senior project manager.

In April Wilson worked 164 hours and earned $27,060. In May he worked 145 hours and earned $23,925. In June he worked 197 hours and earned $32,505. In three months, he earned $83,490 working directly for Seville – the company he hired as an SCW administrator.

On July 1, 2010, Wilson left his position at Seville and returned to work at SWC. The college’s human resources department said that he was hired as a “professional expert in Prop R” and worked on an hourly basis.

In November Salcido, then board president, was defeated in her re-election bid, despite receiving almost $80,000 in campaign contributions from SWC contractors, including $17,500 from a national contractors’ political action committee and $30,000 from Seville. The next month, Wilson retired from SWC for the final time. Seville’s spokesman has refused to comment on whether Wilson is working with them again or not.

Players in L.A. Scandal Head South

In March 2011 the Los Angeles Times began a six-part series on a construction scandal at the Los Angeles Community College District, the cost overruns the district suffered and construction mismanagement issues. On March 3, the Times focused on how contractors had swindled the district and taxpayers out of about $22 million. According to that story, “about two dozen different firms” were engaged in the creation of “body shops,” in which the district would hire consultants and employees and place them with different firms. These contractors would function as employers of record and invoice the district for the employee’s pay, but would add markups for overhead and to make a profit on each. This had the effect of doubling or tripling the cost of an employee to the district taxpayers, and the contractors or subcontractors would pocket the extra money.

One of the contractors named in the story was URS Corp., the program manager of the LACCD construction projects. Another one named was Seville.

A third contractor involved in the LACCD scandal was Mitchell & Associates, which was not named in the Los Angeles Times story. According to LACCD documents available online, Mitchell & Associates provided construction management for LA City College, one of nine campuses in the LACCD, and the district’s flagship school. DeLiso was vice president of construction management for Mitchell & Associates starting in April 2006. According to Seville’s biography of DeLiso, he was project manager for LA City College’s $350 million improvement plan. Prior to that, from 1974 through 2006, he had worked at URS, the firm providing program management to the entire LACCD.

During that time LA City College suffered from construction problems, planning issues, poor decision making by the governing board and project management, and repeated volleys of bad press. In the middle of all that, for about a year and a half, the architects repeatedly butted heads with DSA.

The unnamed Seville employee who spoke to the SWC bond oversight committee dismissed the Los Angeles Times allegations.

“That’s something that everybody did,” he said.

DeLiso, who left Mitchell & Associates at the end of the year and accepted a position with Seville as a senior vice president and San Diego regional manager, claimed no knowledge of any Southwestern College construction firms being used as body shops. He swore that none would.

“I’ve just joined Seville for this project,” he said at the March 23 oversight committee meeting. “I’ve done work with L.A. projects. I worked doing a good job with the community colleges. I pride myself on it.”

DeLiso replaced Amigable on the SWC campus sometime in January 2011.

“I started in January, so Henry left sometime in January,” said DeLiso.

When asked why Amigable was released, DeLiso said he preferred not to respond.

“That’s an HR issue,” he said.

Seville’s spokesman also refused to comment on Amigable’s departure.

Amigable may have left Seville, where he had worked since 2008, but did not leave the SWC project. According to his own on-line LinkedIn profile, Amigable departed Seville in February 2011 and went to work for Echo Pacific Construction, a firm also providing construction services for Prop R and AA work on the SWC campus. According to the March 3 Los Angeles Times article, contractors move employees from employer-of-record to employer-of-record to assure that they are still in the system, getting paid by the district and ensuring a continuous stream of income to the contractors.

Oversight Committee Demands Details

On November 22, 2010, Amigable, Alioto and Wilson met with the bond oversight committee. Chopra would resign one week later. The committee next met on March 23, 2011. Committee chairman David Adams commented on the changes.

“I see we have a lot of new faces here tonight,” he said, addressing Brown, DeLiso, Bob Temple, the temporary interim vice president of fiscal affairs, and Denise Whittaker, the recently-hired interim superintendent. Whittaker and Temple were hired after their predecessors resigned. Brown took over Wilson’s job.

“I guess that makes me the new Nick,” Temple said.

Oversight committee member David Krogh, a CPA, said the personnel shakeup has prevented the committee from overseeing expenditures efficiently.

“There’s been a transition of personnel and there’s been a loss of continuity there,” Krogh said. “When the committee first started, I didn’t have an issue because there wasn’t much money being spent and we were just getting general information. We’re past the start-up phase and we should see some financial statement with some amount of detail. I’m looking forward to seeing that real soon – like yesterday.”

Krogh said SWC and Seville have failed to provide detailed budget and spending breakdowns, instead providing large dollar amounts in broad brushstrokes.

“I don’t feel like we’ve seen anything specific and detailed from either side yet,” said Krogh. “We’re supposed to be an oversight committee so we have to be given more than summary numbers. When I look at sample reports from around the county, I see they’re getting quarterly or monthly statements with more detail than we see.”

Cleaning Up a Mess

Whittaker and Temple have both acknowledged that the governing board wants action on the Prop. R situation. In April the Sun reported that the board had asked Temple to supervise a “focused review” on three parts of the SWC budget: the general fund, the foundation’s fund and Prop R funds. Some of that investigation pivoted on the matter of outstanding contracts.

At the April 13 governing board meeting, the board ratified and gave final approval to 25 change order contracts that had been negotiated by Wilson, Alioto and Amigable, but not approved by the board as state law requires. According to a high level source with knowledge of the issue, the contracts totaled about $22 million. Nader explained that Temple had questions about some of the contracts that he had been reviewing.

“There are questions as to how they were entered, their propriety as to the terms, or anything else that would keep the board from considering them,” said Nader. “Some of the contracts that were found are actually not on our agenda tonight because there are questions that the administration is investigating.”

Temple strongly suggested the board approve the contracts he had brought forward.

“On most of them, the work has been performed,” said Temple. “And on many, but not all of them, much of the money has been paid. Everybody operated in good faith. I stand behind each and every one of these.”

Temple said that he continued to hold “a few” contracts that he could not stand behind and that he would continue to review them.

“I pledge my professional reputation that those contracts were not brought forward because we have not satisfied ourselves that they are in order,” he said. “Everything is going to be looked at.”

Temple said “no comment” when asked how many contracts were involved, the amounts of the contracts he was looking into, or which parties were involved.

Board President Tim Nader said he did not know the amount or parties involved, since the work was still in Temple’s hands, but he did confirm there were “a few” or “two or three” contracts that Temple was still holding as of early May.

“I don’t think it’s a matter where we can’t account for money. It’s a matter of whether some contracts were appropriate,” said Nader. “In other words, we know where the money got spent. It’s another thing to say that the money was spent on services which the college received, and where the contract was an appropriate contract.”

Unable to comment further, Nader explained:

“There are a lot of layers to this,” he said. “Some investigations might be compromised by public comments. There could be the appearance of prejudice toward a contractor from those comments, so I’d be leery of making them.”

Crawling to the Finish Line

As Proposition R construction moves ahead, Proposition AA work sputters to the end. At the April 13 governing board meeting, Temple, Brown and the board discussed Prop. AA delays and problems in construction.

On the agenda was a request by NTD Architecture, the sub-contractors responsible for designing the 510/570 Photo Lab Modernization project, for an additional $63,000 to complete its work for DSA. Though the board passed the item 5-0, trustees Nader and Nick Aguilar questioned whether Seville had done its job to keep the process working correctly.

“The question is whether this firm that we pay millions of dollars to help us understand things, whether they did their job or not,” said Aguilar.

Brown suggested a possible answer for why Seville had butted heads with DSA: awarding contracts and beginning work without the plans gaining approval by the State of California.

“At the time the design was put forward, it was advertised and awarded before DSA approved it,” Brown said. “DSA came back and said they want those changes made. Rather than getting into a disagreement, we made the changes.”

Nader asked about keeping this from happening in the future.

“Isn’t there some way that those specifications can be vetted with DSA prior to awarding the contract so that we don’t get these kinds of surprises?” he said.

Brown said that would have been the appropriate thing to do, but noted that he was not part of the team originally involved with the decision.

“Operationally, we didn’t want to risk the building being completed in time,” he said. “That’s my understanding. These decisions weren’t made by anyone in this room.”

Temple reiterated Brown’s statement that no one currently involved in the process was responsible for the construction delays.

“We hear you very clearly,” he told the board, “and I want to indicate the individual [DeLiso] from our project management firm who is now here working with Mr. Brown and myself was not part of those decisions in the past.”

A Three-Headed Snake

Whittaker is very open about the fact that the governing board hired her to do three things: reaffirm Southwestern’s accreditation, plan for the state fiscal tsunami likely to wash over SWC in fiscal year 2011-12, and get control of Proposition R projects. For the last task she brought in her old colleague Temple, a widely-respected community college fiscal affairs administrator. Temple came out of retirement to help Whittaker through June. Of the three chores, Whittaker has said getting the college off probation would be the easiest.

In the meantime, spring weeds are growing tall on the land that once grew lima beans for American soldiers in both World Wars. Kids on dirt bikes kick up pebbles and clouds of dust. Wrappers from Taco Bell blow around like litterscape tumbleweeds. Other than that, all the corner lot action is taking place indoors.

Nickolas Furr Staff Writer

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