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L.A. official steered work to relatives

Nearly $800,000 in city contracts, often with inflated prices, went to family and firms with political ties, data show.

July 28, 2007|Ted Rohrlich and Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writers

A high-level manager for the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles directed nearly $800,000 in contracts to his brothers and three politically connected firms without competitive bidding or after rigged contests, a Times review has found.

The manager, Victor Taracena, oversaw more than 150 contracts worth about half a million dollars that went directly to companies his brothers created, contract files show.

Seven other contracts worth $289,000 were awarded to non-family firms, two of which had little or no expertise in the work they were hired to do.

These firms -- all with ties to current or former Los Angeles City Council members from the Eastside -- won their contracts in bidding processes fraught with irregularities. In one case, a losing bid was submitted by a nonexistent company. Other such bids came from actual companies which, when contacted by The Times, said they were surprised to learn that bids had been submitted in their names.

Some purported bidders did not correctly spell their own names. And legitimate firms said their stationery had been obtained under false pretenses or fabricated.

"No, no, no, no," said George Sihvonen, a civil engineer who, contract files show, bid unsuccessfully on several jobs. "I haven't submitted any bids.... Those are not my doing at all. Somebody else has used my name."

The contracts involved design and construction of facilities to accommodate disabled people: wheelchair ramps, toilets and grab bars in city housing projects.

In numerous instances, the city housing authority appears to have overpaid for the services, based on comparisons with its counterpart in the county.

The overpayments -- amounting to more than $130,000 for toilets and grab bars alone -- mean that scores of disabled residents may have to wait longer for their apartments to be made appropriately accessible, officials said.

The authority is responsible for providing housing to about 60,000 of the city's poorest families. Though governed by a commission appointed by the mayor, the authority is a free-standing agency primarily funded by the federal government.

Taracena, who was recently fired from his $104,000-a-year job after a housing authority investigation, declined to comment, but his attorney, Marshall Rubin, said his client denies any wrongdoing. He would not elaborate.

Officials at the authority said they had referred Taracena's case to the Los Angeles County district attorney's office for possible prosecution.

David Demerjian, who heads the district attorney's public corruption unit, said no decision had been made on whether to file criminal charges.

The bid-rigging comes at a time when the housing authority is grappling with the consequences of a series of mismanagement and corruption scandals that three years ago had the agency on the brink of federal receivership. The agency no longer faces that danger.

Many agency leaders were swept out in the midst of a federal investigation into allegations of a kickback scheme. No kickbacks were proved.

The agency's current director, Rudolf Montiel, said he has spent much of the last few years working with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to root out corruption. Dozens of staffers have been fired or placed on leave. Several have been referred to the district attorney's office for criminal prosecution.

Taracena, who was hired in August 2003 as a construction project manager, was given the responsibility of bringing the city's 15-plus housing projects into compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act. He was repeatedly promoted and by January 2006 placed in charge of all the authority's design and construction, reporting directly to Montiel.

Shortly after he was hired, according to contract files obtained under the California Public Records Act, he began steering jobs to family-owned construction and design companies. County records suggest that the companies did not exist until they began receiving contracts.

The firms -- Pratt-Jennings-Holmes, Decker & Durden, Trevor and Associates, and So-Called Artists -- are registered in the names of either Bennett or Diego Taracena, Victor Taracena's brothers.

Bennett Taracena declined to be interviewed. Diego Taracena did not respond to a written request for comment.

Contract files show that the brothers' firms won 94 out of the first 100 contracts that Taracena handed out. Most of the jobs were for just less than $2,500 -- then the limit for jobs Taracena could award at his discretion without soliciting bids.

Although the contracts were small, the authority often paid far more than necessary.

For instance, the authority paid nearly $2,500 each to install 20 toilets for disabled people in projects around the city. By comparison, the Los Angeles County Housing Authority would pay about $620, said Geoffrey Siebens, a construction manager there.

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