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Small firm is big source of L.A. school consultants

TBI Associates, under scrutiny for alleged timecard fraud, supplies construction managers.

June 29, 2007|Evelyn Larrubia | Times Staff Writer

Some of the most prominent companies in the construction industry bid regularly to supply consultants to manage the Los Angeles Unified School District's massive school building program.

Leading the pack in placing consultants, however, ahead of such global engineering giants as Parsons Corp. and URS Corp., is a small, 5-year-old company owned by two men who work for the school district as managers in the construction program that is responsible for hiring consultants.

TBI Associates, which is under scrutiny by the district's inspector general for allegations of timecard fraud, supplies 38 of those 311 contract employees now working for the district, more than any of the 64 other firms that bid to supply consultants.

School officials say that TBI's owners have no advantage in landing contracts despite working for the district in full-time consulting roles. Both the district and TBI co-owner Tarek "Rick" Hijazi said that TBI's owners are not allowed to take part in hiring decisions or participate in interviews when one of their firm's candidates is in the running. They said TBI does well mostly because of the sheer volume of candidates it submits.

"I'm telling you," Hijazi said, "we have no influence."

Hijazi is a senior project manager for the district and his partner, Bassam Raslan, is a regional director of construction -- a high-level management job.

The district uses consultants for about 70% of the staff that manages its multibillion-dollar school construction program.

District officials say that hiring consultants rather than full-time employees allows for greater flexibility and attracts better candidates.

The district pays high hourly rates to the firms that supply the consultants. The firms take a profit and pay for overhead and benefits in addition to the wages of their employees who perform the construction oversight work.

The district's goal is to use small firms for at least 25% of its construction jobs. Large firms meet that goal by hiring small sub-consulting firms, such as TBI.

An article in The Times last month revealed that at least nine TBI employees work on projects supervised by Raslan and that he signed the timecards for five of them in a five-month period.

The district inspector general's office is investigating allegations that Raslan approved one employee's hours after the man's direct supervisor had refused to sign his timecard and had accused the employee of padding his hours. Raslan declined to comment on the article.

Hijazi said Friday that some TBI employees also work under him at the district, but that he does not directly supervise them or sign their timecards.

After the Times article was published, the district instituted a policy in which Raslan's supervisor also would have to sign any TBI employee's timecards that were approved by Raslan."No consultant has an advantage over any other consultant," said Jim Cowell, head of the district's new-construction program. He said he briefs the consulting firms twice a year about upcoming openings.

Of the 3,100 resumes submitted to the district by firms that were bidding to supply construction management consultants since August 2005, Cowell said TBI submitted 423, or about 14%. Its consultants were hired for 28 of 178 jobs, or about 16% of the openings.

Raslan and Hijazi met when they were lower-level consultants themselves and decided with a third man, Ivan Kesian, to form TBI in 2002 to take advantage of the district's growing construction program.

They entered into a deal with larger firms to provide subcontractors but initially provided only themselves. Their business soon took off -- as did their careers in the district. Hijazi oversees a number of projects and Raslan has risen to regional manager of construction. Kesian is no longer with the firm or the district.

Raslan and Hijazi each take home more than $320,000 in wages from the hours that they bill to L.A. Unified. In a court declaration, Hijazi said that he and his wife made an additional $326,875 from TBI that year and that Raslan and his wife made another $260,586 from the firm.

"This is the land of opportunity, the United States," Hijazi said. "Anybody who wants to work hard can make it."

evelyn.larrubia@latimes.com

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