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Molina Argues for Firm That Didn't Disclose Violations

Bidding: The parking company failed to tell the county that it broke labor laws. She suggests a second chance.

April 24, 2001|EVELYN LARRUBIA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Los Angeles County supervisor known for her support of organized labor is pressing to give a local parking company that failed to disclose past labor law violations a second chance at a county contract.

Supervisor Gloria Molina has resisted awarding a modest parking contract to the firm that won the bid. Her action contravenes the recommendations of county staff, which initially awarded one company the contract but then recommended giving it to a rival because the chosen firm was found to have failed to pay some employees overtime--a breach it was required to disclose in its bid but did not.

The result has been that Downey-based Parking Co. of America has continued to collect on its contract with the county government, while Five Star Parking, the other bidder, has been shut out.

A spokesman said Molina questioned the severity of this violation and found it unfair that some departments automatically downgrade bidders for all labor law or living wage violations while others weigh the violation based on its severity, according to her staff.

"The standards are not specific and they're still not clear," said Miguel Santana, Molina's spokesman. "In our office, it's an issue of consistency and wanting to be fair. . . . If there are inconsistencies, we should err on the side of starting from scratch" and rebidding the contract.

What should have been the routine award of the roughly $70,000-a-year contract has been postponed by supervisors three times, taken into closed session and has yet to be resolved nearly two months after the winner was identified.

The dispute involves a three-year contract to manage parking at a 356-space lot at the Department of Children and Family Services' Borax Building office, 3075 Wilshire Blvd. Parking Co. of America initially came out on top because it scored equally with Five Star in the county's complicated bid evaluation process and beat Five Star's price.

That was in part because PCA received high marks for claiming not to have violated labor or living wage laws. County officials later learned the state had investigated an employee's complaint that PCA was not paying overtime and found the firm in violation, according to county documents.

When county officials called PCA on it, the firm revised its application and explained that the unpaid overtime was caused by a "miscalculation due to overlapping shifts on a transportation contract."

The violation cost PCA points, leaving Five Star with the highest score.

While the contract is being decided, PCA, which has managed the lot since 1996, continues to do the job. It has not formally appealed the agency's recommendation.

"I have no idea why a $70,000 contract would create such interest--but it has," said Joe Lumer, general manager for Five Star in Los Angeles and the tentative winner of the contract. "It's curious."

From what he has heard so far, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said he doesn't see a reason to keep the contract from Five Star.

"I agree that it would be useful, helpful and a good thing if all departments in the county had the same set of scoring, but it's not relevant to this particular issue," he said. "That wouldn't have changed the result here because we had one bidder who misinformed the county about a violation.

"The issue isn't the county's inconsistency," he said. "The issue is the bidder's inconsistency."

It is on the agenda to be discussed again today.

Molina was the first to put the brakes on awarding the contract to Five Star on April 3, but she was not the only supervisor to continue discussion of the award from meeting to meeting. Don Knabe and Yaroslavsky also moved to postpone voting on it.

Molina's staff said the parking debate in the contract resembles another parking pact controversy earlier this month that resulted in an award being thrown out and a contract rebid.

"The only fair thing is to treat it the same way we treated the other contract. They're the same vendors," Santana said. "Gloria spoke up and said: 'If we're going to throw out one, then throw out the other.' It's important to us not to show favoritism to one company."

In that case, Five Star lost a much larger Beaches and Harbor contract to Parking Concepts Inc. because, though Five Star was the lowest bidder, it was not meeting the county's living wage requirement. Five Star appealed the decision, claiming that its collective bargaining agreement with its unionized employees exempted it from the county's living wage law.

Faced with uncertainties about how to apply the county rules, Molina's staff has asked county counsel to draft uniform guidelines for all departments to follow in evaluating labor law violations.

She has long pressed labor's case with her colleagues. In fact, it was Molina who championed the concept of weighing such violations in the evaluation of bids at all. Before that, they had not been part of the process, Santana said.

In the current case, Molina's staff said the firm did not think it had to disclose the violation to the county because the state investigation was still underway when it applied for the DCFS parking contract.

"It's like a ticket," Molina said. "It doesn't appear on your license until you don't go to court, so it's not a ticket as far as your insurance company is concerned until it appears on your record."

Still, though the probe was not closed until after PCA bid on the contract, a county memo on the issue shows that the firm had sent nearly $10,000 worth of checks to the state to compensate employees for back wages four months before the bid. Company officials offer a different explanation.

"It was a clerical mistake," said Eduardo Erbes, head of PCA's parking division. He said the "no" box was checked in error to the question regarding labor law violations: "When we sign it, we don't focus on those things."

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