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OnTrac Chief Focus of D.A. Probe

Officials looking into whether Christopher Becker, as Placentia's public works director, illegally swayed city to hire him for rail project.

August 01, 2004|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

The Orange County district attorney's office has opened an investigation into whether the head of a troubled $400-million rail project for Placentia broke state conflict-of-interest laws related to a lucrative consulting contract.

Investigators are looking into assertions that Christopher Becker, when he was Placentia's public works director, illegally influenced his own hiring by the city in April 2000 to run the OnTrac project as a private consultant.

Becker's original employment contract guaranteed him $4.5 million over 10 years, or $450,000 a year, making him one of the highest-paid transportation officials in the nation.

Amid controversy over his pay, the OnTrac board, which is made up city officials, revised Becker's contract almost three years later and reduced his salary to about $300,000 a year.

OnTrac, a plan to build 11 overpasses and lower five miles of railroad tracks into a concrete trench, is designed to help revitalize downtown Placentia and speed the movement of freight to and from the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.

The project has been a source of controversy and frustration for Placentia over the last two years. Facing a $12-million shortfall in state funding, town leaders have cut programs, auctioned parkland, sold bonds and once considered eliminating the Police Department to keep the project afloat.

The salaries of Becker and other consultants have been cut in half until more funding can be found.

The district attorney is responding to a single complaint by two elected Placentia officials and Citizens for a Better Placentia, a group of community activists that has questioned the project's management and expenditures for more than 18 months. They contacted the district attorney in June, requesting an investigation into possible conflicts of interest.

Members of the citizens group said they were interviewed by a district attorney investigator last week.

As part of their complaint, they submitted a confidential legal memorandum written by City Atty. Thomas Nixon in January 2003 after controversy erupted over OnTrac and Becker's contract.

The memo maintained that Becker had a conflict of interest related to his contract and that a court would probably come to the same conclusion.

Under state law, public officials cannot influence, arrange or participate in government contracts in which they have a personal or financial interest.

The legal opinion states that before the contract was awarded, Becker suggested salary terms and recommended to city officials that he be hired. Nixon noted that no independent reports, analysis or recommendations were requested, and that Becker was the only person considered for the job.

If Becker's original contract is illegal, Nixon wrote, he could be subject to civil or criminal penalties, including the return of about $830,000 in consulting fees to the city.

Becker declined to be interviewed. Instead, he issued a statement through OnTrac's public relations firm.

"I have an excellent professional reputation that has been maliciously attacked, as part of election year politics, by a very small group of activists, working under the Citizens for a Better Placentia political action committee."

Becker stated that he looked forward to cooperating with the city, OnTrac and the district attorney.

"I am confident that once all the information is reviewed, I will be completely cleared from any wrongdoing," he said.

Citizens for a Better Placentia, which is running a slate of candidates in the November election, has questioned Becker's salary and more than $9.2 million in OnTrac expenditures for grant writers, financial advisors, administrators, lobbyists, political strategists, studies and public relations.

Assemblyman Todd Spitzer (R-Orange), who supports the project but questions its management, said he might ask the state auditor's office to also investigate Becker's original employment contract.

"The last word has come from the city attorney on this," Spitzer said. "This issue needs to be resolved in the daylight, not behind closed doors."

Placentia is now about $22 million in debt and owes at least $5.1 million to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co. for track work and $5.6 million to Office Depot for property purchased last year for right of way. Officials hope the overdue state funds will arrive soon and that the federal government will eventually fund the project's construction.

For now, city officials are trying to secure a $5.6-million loan from the Orange County Transportation Authority so they can pay Office Depot for land needed on Placentia Avenue for a new overpass.

Unable to close the deal because of a shortage of funds, Placentia has been paying Office Depot $761 a day in interest penalties since Feb. 21 for a total of about $130,000.

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