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U.S. Subpoenas Records From LAX Officials

Federal authorities are interested in documents related to a review of Hahn's modernization plan and a project management contract.

March 19, 2004|Jessica Garrison and Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writers

In a widening probe of contracting at the Los Angeles airport department, the U.S. attorney's office has subpoenaed records and notes from the files of Airport Commission President Ted Stein and airport deputy executive director James Ritchie.

The federal subpoena, dated Wednesday, ordered Stein and Ritchie to turn over documents related to a review of Mayor James K. Hahn's proposed $9-billion modernization plan for Los Angeles International Airport.

Authorities are specifically interested in a $22.4-million project management contract awarded in 2001 to URS Corp., a San Francisco-based firm.

Federal officials declined to comment on their interest in the URS contract. Stein and Ritchie also declined comment, and URS officials could not be reached.

But Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, a vocal critic of Hahn's plan for the airport, questioned why airport officials curtailed the scope of URS' work on the modernization plan.

"There have been questions raised as to the contractor's work at [the airport] for the master plan," Miscikowski, whose district includes the airport, said in an interview.

"Was it stopped because of a peer review saying you should change ships, or was it changed for other reasons?"

Airport spokesman Paul Haney said airport officials are "happy to provide these and any other documents the U.S. attorney asks for."

"We're confident that the documents will confirm that the procedures and decisions made at [the airport] were appropriate and justified by the facts," he said.

This week's subpoena comes a month after federal officials subpoenaed a broader array of records from the city's airport, harbor, and water and power departments, which included all contracts for more than $100,000 spanning several years.

Contracting practices in Los Angeles also are a subject of a probe by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said this month that he was interested in whether city officials may have engaged in "pay to play" -- trading favorable treatment during contract talks for campaign contributions.

Los Angeles' system of governance allows citizen commissioners, most of them appointed by the mayor, to oversee the city's departments.

In the case of the airport, harbor, and water and power departments, those commissioners are responsible for handing out millions of dollars in contracts. Some of those commissioners, including Stein, have also raised campaign funds for Hahn.

Earlier this month, amid concern that there is at least a perception of corruption in city contracting practices, the City Council voted to prohibit commissioners from raising money for local elected officials.

At that time, two council members also took the unusual step of calling for the removal of Stein and Deputy Mayor Troy Edwards, saying that they had cast a pall of disrepute over the city. Edwards is responsible for overseeing the airport and other parts of city government.

Stein responded to their demand by saying he had done nothing wrong.

For months, some city officials have questioned contracting practices at the airport. On Dec. 15, City Controller Laura Chick said she had uncovered evidence of "potential illegal acts" during an audit of contracting practices at the airport.

She declined to elaborate, but said she had turned evidence over to the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general, as well as to state and local authorities.

In early January, agents from the inspector general's office met with Chick, and an inspector from that office was listed as the investigator on the federal subpoenas issued in February.

Wednesday's subpoena, by contrast, listed the name and telephone number of an agent with the FBI's public corruption unit.

At issue in the subpoena is a review by five airport officials from outside Los Angeles who were asked by officials in early 2003 to scrutinize the mayor's plan to rework LAX and also to determine if the dozens of consultants were charging too much money.

Airports around the country often use so-called peer review panels to study proposed capital improvement projects and garner advice.

Ritchie, the airport deputy executive director, told the City Council last year that airport officials had called for the review in part because they were concerned that URS was providing estimates for preliminary designs that seemed too costly.

URS was originally hired by then-Mayor Richard Riordan's staff in 1999.

Later, Hahn scrapped Riordan's plan and proposed his own. Shortly afterward, airport officials asked URS to estimate how much it would cost to finish planning work on Hahn's proposal.

The panel met Jan. 27 and 28 at LAX and ultimately concluded that the airport was spending too much money on consultants and that it should do more work in house, Ritchie told the council.

But the panel did not produce a written report, officials said.

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