Art Gastelum, whose company has a contract to manage construction at one of the district's campuses, accused The Times of pursuing "a witch hunt" against minority contractors.
"When you're a small business, you hire the right people for the right client at the right price, and that's your expertise," he said.
While some contractors in the construction program have political voltage, others have personal connections in the insular world of Los Angeles school builders. A powerful figure in that world is James Sohn.
Sohn leads the $20-billion building program at L.A. Unified. From April 2007 to July 2009, he was the URS vice president overseeing the college district's construction program.
During that time, the district employed construction management staff through SASM Consulting, a company owned by Michael Kuehn, a longtime colleague of Sohn's.
Kuehn is an information technology expert specializing in public works construction. He and Sohn worked in construction management for a Seattle transit agency, Continental Airlines in Houston and L.A. Unified.
They also made a real estate investment together in 2000, buying a house in Cerritos for $249,000. In 2001, Kuehn gave his one-third share in the home to Sohn, property records show. The house was later placed in a Sohn family trust. It is now a rental property, according to a tenant.
Initially, the college district paid SASM Consulting for the services of Kuehn and three other computer and accounting specialists.
Over time, the district put 17 more people on SASM's payroll. Sohn personally approved five worker assignments to SASM, records show.
Many of those employed through SASM worked in areas other than information technology and accounting. Lynn Winter Gross went on Kuehn's payroll a month after retiring as a spokeswoman for the college district. She was paid to conduct media tours, attend public relations strategy meetings and plan a sustainability conference, among other duties, labor logs show.
Over the last three years, construction program employees on SASM's payroll have earned nearly $3 million, records show. But the district has spent $8 million for their services. The difference — about $5 million — has gone to SASM and URS for profit and overhead, records show.
Kuehn did not respond to phone calls and e-mails. Sohn refused repeated requests for an interview.
In corporate registration papers filed with the state, SASM lists as its "principal executive office" a studio apartment in the downtown Museum Tower. Kuehn moved out of the 12th-floor unit last year.
On its bare-bones website, SASM lists a San Mateo address as its corporate office. But there is no sign of SASM there; it is a store called Box Ship & More.
A bank of mailboxes — one of them Kuehn's — lines one wall. The business rate to rent a mailbox is $54 for three months.
Times researchers Malloy Moore and Sandra Poindexter and correspondent Dianne Klein contributed to this report.