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U.S., County Probe City Contracting

Port officials testify before the L.A. County Grand Jury and federal prosecutors call two people to appear next week to give testimony.

March 31, 2004|Jessica Garrison and Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writers

Two officials from the Port of Los Angeles and two port secretaries testified Tuesday before the county grand jury as local and federal prosecutors expanded their investigations into city contracting in Los Angeles.

Responding to subpoenas received Monday, Al Fierstine, the port's director of business development, and Audrey Yamaki, secretary to the board of harbor commissioners, appeared before the closed-door panel, port officials said. Also appearing were Barbara Lee, who is Fierstine's secretary, and Patricia Perka, who is secretary to Larry Keller, the port's executive director, the officials said.

Keller testified before the county grand jury last week, they added.

In additional subpoenas served this week, federal prosecutors called Keller and Julia Nagano, the port's director of public affairs, to testify before a federal grand jury next week.

Although the U.S. attorney subpoenaed thousands of pages of contracting documents from the port, the airport and the water and power departments in February, Nagano and Keller are the first two city officials confirmed by the city to have received federal subpoenas.

Keller declined to comment, as did several of the other officials called to testify.

Spokesmen for the district attorney's office and the U.S. attorney's office also refused to discuss the subpoenas or the investigation.

Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said earlier this month that his office was investigating whether some members of Mayor James K. Hahn's administration traded favorable treatment during contract negotiations for campaign contributions.

Deputy Mayor Troy Edwards, who oversaw all three departments for a time and previously served as a fundraiser for Hahn's 2001 mayoral campaign, testified before the county grand jury in February.

Citizen commissioners, appointed by the mayor to oversee those departments, award hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts and leases annually.

Edwards, who for a time was also in charge of commission appointments, announced his resignation last week, amid persistent calls from other city leaders for his departure.

He said he had done nothing wrong, and was called only to testify as a witness.

The mayor has refused to comment on the ongoing investigations.

"The mayor has directed his staff and the city's departments to cooperate with the investigations," spokeswoman Shannon Murphy said Tuesday. "Beyond that, we are not going to comment."

The county grand jury has been investigating contracting at Los Angeles International Airport for months, subpoenaing several senior airport executives, including Jim Ritchie, who is overseeing planning for a $9-billion modernization plan.

Also subpoenaed was a secretary in the airport communications office.

County prosecutors have also sought testimony from representatives of several companies that have done work on the airport planning, including a vice president with Camp, Dresser and McKee, a Cambridge, Mass.-based consulting firm that has more than $19 million in contracts for work on the LAX master plan.

Federal officials, meanwhile, issued subpoenas last month for records and notes from the files of Airport Commission President Ted Stein and Ritchie pertaining to the modernization plan.

Stein, who has denied improper conduct, is a major fundraiser for Hahn.

Criminal investigations into how contracts were awarded came after a Times investigation into political favoritism in awarding concessions contracts at Los Angeles International Airport and highly critical audits of the airport and port by City Controller Laura Chick.

Chick criticized both agencies for failing to adequately document how public business, including the awarding of contracts and leases, was being conducted at the airport and port.

Providing few specifics, Chick said she suspected criminal wrongdoing in some airport contracting.

She said she had turned over a series of questionable contracting documents to local prosecutors.

Chick's airport audit spurred increasingly harsh criticism that there was a link between contracting and political donations at the airport.

Earlier this month, the City Council passed a ban on fundraising by city commissioners to help eliminate the perception that contractors must make political contributions to do business with the city.

Hahn, meanwhile, has proposed an even more extensive reform package that would, among other things, ban city contractors from giving to political campaigns.

The package has thus far received a cool reception, with some calling Hahn's proposal disingenuous.

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