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L.A. Trash Trucks: Warnings Unheeded

Despite years of workers' complaints, the city awarded contracts to firm that made the vehicle involved in fatal accident, memos show. Key players deny any special favors.

February 25, 1996|ROBERT J. LOPEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a horrible and heartbreaking way for the two young friends to die, their heads shattered by a metal rod that burst out of a Los Angeles trash truck then punctured a school bus in which the boys were sitting side by side.

City officials were quick to dismiss the accident as a fluke, a bizarre malfunction. Others, closer to the ground, were shocked by the deaths but not surprised by the breakdown.

For two years, city maintenance workers had been warning that the truck bodies--built by Amrep Inc. of Ontario--were plagued by design flaws and substandard workmanship, memos obtained by The Times show.

They were especially critical of welds that were cracking on crucial parts, a major factor in the December deaths of Brian Serrano and Javier Mata.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 31, 1996 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
Perma--A Feb. 25 article in The Times incorrectly said that a Stockton business address used by a company bidding on a Los Angeles city trash truck contract did not exist. In fact, the address is located in an industrial park there and a lease deposit was made on it by Jose Ghibaudo, who said he was doing business as Perma Manufacturing. However, Perma was never formed and, according to the landlord, the property was never used.

So pervasive were the problems that the top maintenance supervisor urged his boss to rethink Amrep's multimillion-dollar links to the city.

"I again recommend that we stop buying trucks with Amrep bodies," he wrote to then-fleet services director Harold Cain in late 1993.

But that did not happen. Instead, the money kept flowing. Cain never told higher-ups of the deficiencies, and his division recommended another contract for Amrep and its partner, Inland Empire White GMC, which built the trucks' frames.

With no tough action being taken, some workers questioned the city's relationship with Amrep and Inland. Cain, for example, played golf with an Inland executive, while another city employee overseeing the truck contract was a friend of the head of Amrep.

The suspicions of favoritism hardened last year when Cain went to work for Inland--six months after his future employer and Amrep received $18 million for another fleet of trash trucks.

Cain and other key players in the Amrep/Inland contracts deny any special favors and insist that there was no way to foresee the catastrophe that claimed the lives of the two 8-year-olds. They contend that all trash trucks are "high maintenance," no matter who makes them, and that Amrep's work was consistent with industry standards.

"Hindsight is always 20-20," said Randall C. Bacon, head of the city's general services department, which is responsible for buying and fixing the trash trucks. "But I haven't been exposed to anything that would show me anything was done wrong."

Others are less certain.

The city controller's office, in response to questions by The Times, has begun a broad investigation into the matter--from how the contracts were awarded to what, if any, personal relationships existed between city and company officials.

"This is a major concern to us," said Controller Rick Tuttle.

Although the presidents of Amrep and Inland declined to comment, Amrep attorney James Reed said the company's large volume of business speaks for itself. "Why do most people choose Amrep? It is the quality," he said.

*

Beyond disclosures that city employees had been complaining for years about Amrep's quality, hundreds of pages of documents obtained by The Times through the state Public Records Act reveal other irregularities.

Among them:

* Trucks broke down so often that Amrep received hundreds of thousands of dollars in cost overruns under annual contracts to provide spare parts. For instance, one contract was increased from $105,000 to $350,000. This despite the fact that the purchasing agent approving the expenditures exceeded his authority to do so.

* Amrep and Inland submitted false documents to the city in an apparent effort to undercut other bidders for a $10.7-million contract in 1993. Although Amrep and Inland had entered the competition, they submitted an even lower bid by a fake company to make sure no one could beat them. Its name: Perma Inc., which is Amrep spelled backward. Cain knocked Perma out of contention when a rival business questioned its existence, but Inland and Amrep were not penalized. They landed the contract as the second-lowest bidder.

* Key documents detailing why city officials considered Amrep/Inland trucks the best despite the numerous complaints about quality are missing from the contract files. "That should all be in there," said Asst. General Manager Jon K. Mukri. "I can't explain it."

The disclosures are certain to complicate the city's legal strategies. One victim's family has sued the city, and the other family is expected to follow soon.

"What can I say? I will never get my son back," Javier's father, Francisco Mata, said when told of the revelations in the documents. "They should have done something about the problems. . . . I hope this tragedy never happens to anyone else."

Steven A. Lerman, who represents Brian's mother, Maria Serrano, added: "To continue purchasing the equipment given the repeated complaints is insane."

Some of the problems cited by the city repair staff were confirmed by an independent metallurgist hired by the city after the boys' deaths. Among other things, he concluded that the accident resulted from design flaws and poor quality workmanship endemic to the Amrep fleet.

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