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School district billing probe begun

The D.A.'s office is checking into possible padding of hours.

February 28, 2008|Evelyn Larrubia | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles County district attorney's Public Integrity Unit is reviewing whether a high-level consultant for the Los Angeles Unified School District's building program engaged in a conflict of interest.

David Demerjian, head of the unit, said Wednesday that his office has been looking at Bassam Raslan, a district regional director of construction and an owner of TBI Associates, which he co-founded to supply staff to the district's $20-billion school construction effort.

"It's still in the review stage," said Demerjian, whose unit prosecutes misdeeds by public and appointed officials. "We're not at the point yet where we can say there was a conflict."

One of several articles about the firm published by The Times last year revealed that Raslan had approved timecards for a TBI employee accused of inflating his hours.

The district's inspector general launched a fraud investigation regarding those allegations last year, but has not released any reports on the subject.

Raslan did not respond to a message left at his office Wednesday afternoon. He has repeatedly declined to comment on the substance of the allegations, saying only that he did not violate district policies or procedures.

A district spokeswoman said the school system would not comment until the investigation was complete.

The Times articles detailed allegations against Stephen Cole, who billed for dozens of days when a district inspector's log shows he was absent from his principal job site, an addition at Mount Washington Elementary School. Raslan signed Cole's timecards over three months, records show, and billed the district $88,000 in fees for Cole's time.

Cole's immediate supervisor said he had refused to sign the timecards because he thought they were fraudulent. The supervisor, who no longer works for the district, said that when he reported his concerns about the padded hours to Raslan, the manager ordered him to continue signing Cole's timecards. A district spokeswoman said Cole left the school system last summer.

The district said it hires consultants for about 70% of the staff that manages its school construction program, because the practice allows for greater flexibility and attracts better candidates.

The district pays contract firms hourly rates for time billed on behalf of the consultants, who officially work for the private firms. Those firms take a portion to cover profits, overhead and, sometimes, benefits before paying their employees.

In 2002, Raslan and two other then low-level consultants founded TBI to capitalize on the district's burgeoning program, records show.

Business went well as TBI became a subcontractor to several large firms. Last year, the company supplied 38 of 311 contract employees in the construction program, more than any of the 64 other firms that supply them.

Global construction management firms typically hire small, local companies such as TBI as subcontractors to meet the district's goal of 25% small-business participation.

Guy Mehula, L.A. Unified's chief facilities executive, has said that he wasn't concerned about a conflict of interest by Raslan. But after The Times revealed that nine TBI staffers worked under Raslan and that he had signed timecards for five of them in a five-month period, Mehula said he would change district policy. Raslan's boss must now sign off when he approves the hours for TBI staffers.

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evelyn.larrubia@latimes.com

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