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Editorial

The Los Angeles Community College District blues

The district's construction program is a mess, and its leaders haven't shown much resolve to fix things.

August 26, 2011

When it comes to taking responsibility for serious ethical and construction mistakes, the leaders of the Los Angeles Community College District have been too quick to defend their actions and too slow to admit they might have done wrong. That was true in February, when The Times published a series of articles on the district's multibillion-dollar building program, and it's true today.

The articles detailed various problems with the program, which was financed by a $5.7-billion voter-approved bond. Millions of dollars were wasted. Poor design and shoddy construction plagued several projects. There were too many ethical lapses. District leaders at first challenged the series, saying that mistakes had been extremely few and small. They pronounced the program a success and praised their construction chief. Then, a couple of weeks later, they agreed that they needed an overhaul of their ethical standards and building practices, and they fired the construction chief.

Earlier this month, state Controller John Chiang released a scathing audit of the program, accusing district officials of "shoddy fiscal management and subpar oversight" that resulted in the misuse of $140 million. District officials questioned those findings and said they had been diligent about spending the money well.

Then last week, trustees rejected a call by state auditors for an outside investigation into how the district had hired the program's inspector general — the very person who had been brought on board more than a year ago to keep the district from abusing the trust that voters had placed in it. That call was prompted by the auditors' contention that Christine E. Marez — formerly an employee of a major donor to the campaigns of district trustees — was hired for the job even though she was unqualified. The initial selection committee had ranked her proposal for the job next to last of the 11 that had been submitted.

Board member Kelly Candaele asked to see evidence from Chiang's office that the hiring had been rigged. But that's exactly the point. The audit's finding is enough to raise eyebrows; it will take a more thorough investigation to determine whether there was malfeasance. That doesn't necessarily have to be a criminal investigation, as Chiang's office suggested, but it should be done by an outside agency. When the district's selection of an ethical guard dog is questioned as potentially unethical, district leaders can't be entrusted with the job of investigating themselves.

For now, the civil grand jury for Los Angeles County should look into Marez's hiring. The board could make it easier on itself by welcoming the jury's involvement, but the jury should investigate with or without the board's support.

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