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Former L.A. Unified construction manager admits conflict of interest

Bassam Raslan gets five years' probation for using his authority to hire people from a company he owned to work on the district's school building program. He must also perform 200 hours of community service and pay $250,000 in restitution.

December 10, 2010|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times

A former top construction manager for the Los Angeles Unified School District pleaded guilty Thursday to using his authority with the district to hire people who worked for a company he owned.

The conviction is the highest-profile affirmation to date of alleged impropriety within the sprawling district's $27-billion school construction and modernization program. The school construction effort, the nation's largest such program, has won acclaim for quality and design, but also has been dogged by allegations that costly consultants engaged in self-enriching conduct.

Bassam Raslan, 53, pleaded guilty to one count of conflict of interest, according to the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Craig Veals sentenced Raslan to five years' probation and ordered him to complete 200 hours of community service and pay $250,000 in restitution to the school district. In exchange for his plea, prosecutors asked the judge to dismiss eight other conflict-of-interest charges.

A grand jury indictment, returned in March, alleged that Raslan co-founded TBI & Associates to profit from the district's hiring of construction managers. TBI was among a number of firms that made small fortunes through the massive construction program.

Raslan, who worked as a subcontractor, supplied employees to the district but also was highly valued for his own management of projects on behalf of L.A. Unified, district officials have acknowledged.

He got into trouble, prosecutors said, by combining his roles — essentially using his senior leadership position to push the hiring of his own workers.

The district has relied heavily on consultants and limited-term contract employees. The goal was to attract high-quality workers while providing flexibility to increase or reduce their numbers as needed.

Raslan had asserted that district officials were aware of everything he did. Some district critics support this contention. And auditors have concluded, more than once, that numerous conflicts of interest existed.

An audit this year examined records dating to 2002 and found 225 instances in which consultant hiring panels included people from the same company as the applicant.

Eighty hires were made without using the required panels at all. And auditors identified four still unnamed people who participated in hiring panels and "stood to receive a direct financial benefit because they selected a [consultant] from a firm in which they had an investment," wrote Los Angeles City Controller Wendy Greuel, whose office conducted the audit.

These four individuals were in addition to Raslan, district general counsel Dave Holmquist said in a recent interview. He added that L.A. Unified has improved its practices to limit conflicts of interest.

The district has yet to provide figures, requested by The Times in April, on how much it had paid Raslan or TBI — either on an annual basis or since Raslan began work for the district in 2002. Holmquist said the information had not yet been compiled. Raslan lost his position with the district after he was indicted in April.

As of late October, 20 TBI contractors were working for the district. Officials said they were crucial to ongoing projects.

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