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Inquiry targets 2 contractors on L.A. community colleges project

The D.A.'s probe centers on Los Angeles Community College District allegations that the firms submitted fraudulent billings for Mission College work, part of a $5.7-billion construction program.

December 01, 2011|By Gale Holland and Michael Finnegan, Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles County prosecutors are investigating possible criminal wrongdoing by two major contractors working for the Los Angeles Community College District as part of its $5.7-billion campus construction program.

The inquiry centers on allegations by the district's inspector general that companies owned by Art Gastelum and Nizar Katbi submitted fraudulent billings for construction work at Mission College in Sylmar, Deputy Dist. Atty. Max Huntsman said Wednesday.

The district alleges that Gastelum's firm approved a payment to Katbi's company for work it had not performed.

"If it is true they submitted false claims in order to be paid for work that wasn't done, that is clearly a crime," Huntsman said.

Gastelum, a former Los Angeles City Hall lobbyist and prominent political fundraiser, denied any misconduct. "I look forward to cooperating with their investigation," he said in a phone interview.

Katbi was unaware of the inquiry and could not comment, a spokeswoman said.

Citing the billing questions and other alleged irregularities, the college district is seeking to terminate a construction management contract with Gastelum's company, Gateway Science and Engineering of Pasadena, and to sever ties to Katbi's construction firm, FTR International of Irvine.

Miguel Santiago, president of the college board, said the district will work with prosecutors.

Voters approved funding for a massive rebuilding campaign across the community college district's nine aging campuses in three bond measures beginning in 2001. The Times, in a six-part series published earlier this year, reported that tens of millions of construction dollars had been squandered on frivolous spending, shoddy workmanship and poor planning.

The program is nearing the halfway mark, with 149 projects completed, including science labs, computer centers and classroom buildings, the district reported this fall. Nearly $3 billion remains in the building fund, and 184 more projects are scheduled over the next four years.

Gateway, which has managed public works projects across Southern California, oversees $450 million in construction at Mission College, including an athletic center built by FTR.

After Times reporters asked the district questions about some of FTR's bills, the inspector general accused FTR of submitting the allegedly fraudulent claim and faulted Gateway for approving it.

The district has also accused Gateway of mismanagement and poor judgment at Mission College and FTR of shoddy workmanship on a science complex at Valley College in Valley Glen.

gale.holland@latimes.com

michael.finnegan@latimes.com

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