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Deals and Donations

January 23, 2003

Tutor-Saliba, Los Angeles' bad-boy construction colossus, may have more political lives than Richard Nixon. Three months ago, city officials were about to disqualify the firm from bidding on a lucrative contract at city-owned Van Nuys Airport because of the notoriously shoddy work it did in the 1990s on local subway tunnels. But this week the Airport Commission unanimously awarded Tutor-Saliba the contract to build the parking garage and bus terminal for shuttling passengers from Van Nuys to L.A. International Airport.

Maybe instead of having the company best qualified for the project, President Ronald N. Tutor was just the best-connected bidder, in addition to being a generous campaign contributor. Other contract awards in the last year or so involving commission President Ted Stein and the man who appointed him, Mayor James K. Hahn, only amplify suspicion. As airport revenue was nose-diving after the Sept. 11 attacks, for example, the commission voted to pay up to $1.5 million to extend a $9-million contract for the public relations firm Winner & Associates to plug an expansion plan for LAX. The company was kept on even after public opposition and terrorism put the expansion plan on ice. Owner Chuck Winner had held fund-raisers for Hahn's mayoral campaign, and, with family members and associates, he had donated $20,000 to Hahn.

Weeks after approving Winner's sweetheart deal, the Airport Commission extended by 2 1/2 years the contract for HMS Host Corp., LAX's major food and beverage provider. On this one, Stein cut his fellow commissioners out of the loop, requiring no competitive bidding and allowing little public discussion. Instead, he bargained directly with Host executives, who, along with their employees, threw $15,000 into Hahn's war chest. And the two commissioners who raised a ruckus about Stein's unorthodox contracting methods? Hahn fired them.

In this context, Tutor-Saliba's $33-million windfall this week is almost predictable.

In its subway years, Tutor-Saliba outrageously tried to get away with installing less concrete than required in parts of the subway tunnels it dug, a dereliction that delayed the project and enraged taxpayers, who voted to cut off local funds for future subways. Then, after Tutor made the required repairs, the firm sued, claiming it had been underpaid. A jury decided otherwise, finding that Tutor-Saliba owed $29.5 million for submitting false claims. By that point Tutor, his employees and their spouses had given the Hahn campaign $39,000, and the firm gave $100,000 last year to help Hahn defeat San Fernando Valley secession.

Do these dots connect? The Los Angeles City Council hasn't bothered to look. Some members grumbled at the Winner and Host contracts, but the council in November rubber-stamped the mayor's choices to replace the two airport commissioners who dared question Stein. Under the City Charter, it could and should vote to reconsider the Tutor-Saliba contract.

Today at 2 p.m. in the council chambers, Hahn, City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo and City Controller Laura Chick are holding what they bill as the first jointly sponsored public hearing on how city contracts are awarded. It comes in response to complaints from businesses about the slow and complicated application process. But as the Tutor-Saliba contract makes clear, red tape is just the first of the city's problems.

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