Architects Felt Pressure For Trustee Donations

Several firms seeking work with Santa Ana District were asked to give to campaigns. Ten of the 15 chosen made at last one donation

Architects vying for up to $350 million in construction work for the overcrowded Santa Ana Unified School District said they were hit with a flurry of campaign fund-raising appeals this year from trustees who were deciding which companies would get the coveted jobs.

Some hopeful companies said they saw the solicitations as a possible conflict of interest, and others said they felt pressured when contacted by school board members–some seeking funds for reelection and others hoping to retire 1998 campaign debts.

One architect said such appeals are a fact of life for people seeking business from agencies run by elected officials. The practice is legal, though public interest groups condemn it.

School board member Nativo V. Lopez, recently reelected to a second term, collected the most contributions from architects bidding for school jobs, according to campaign documents–nearly $ 24,000. Lopez raised $ 150,000 overall for his campaign, a record for any Orange County school board race, according to state school officials. Four years earlier, during his first run for office, Lopez collected a total of $ 21,400 in contributions.

Lopez said the bid process was unrelated to the fund-raising for his school board race. He defended the repeated solicitations, noting that politicians across the county, state and nation do the same.

“I am not doing anything different from what Gov. Gray Davis or President-elect George W. Bush have done to raise funds for their campaigns,” said Lopez, 48, director of the nonprofit Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, which provides services to immigrants. “They have been successful at the state and national levels, and I have been successful at it locally.”

Two architects have complained to the district, questioning the propriety of the fund-raising appeals by Lopez and other board members. State laws allow elected officials to seek such political contributions without running afoul of conflict-of- interest rules.

The process of having school board members screen architects–a practice traditionally handled by district staff–has sparked controversy among trustees. Two complained that the change slowed selection of architects to the point that the district wasn’t able to apply for state matching funds for construction before they ran out.

Others, including Santa Ana Unified Supt. Al Mijares, said the district never could have prepared the project proposals fast enough to compete for the funds. The district will submit projects for any future state bond money, he said.

Mijares said Lopez and the other board members performed their duties choosing architects responsibly and handled their campaigns properly.

“I can attest without question to the competence of the architects that have been selected,” Mijares said. “We are hiring people with a proven track record of competence and they’re going to build first-rate projects.”

A total of 35 companies bid for architectural contracts, according to district records. Of 15 companies ultimately selected for either modernization or new construction projects, 10 had donated to at least one board member. Five companies that received work didn’t contribute to any of the candidates.

Eight of the architects told The Times they felt uncomfortable or resented the fund-raising requests. Some firms didn’t return calls from The Times, while several others declined to discuss the matter publicly, saying they didn’t want to anger board members and jeopardize current or future contracts.

‘It Just Seems Inappropriate’

Besides Lopez, architects said they responded to solicitations from board members John Palacio and Nadia Maria Davis, who were elected in 1998. Trustee Audrey Yamagata-Noji said she also solicited architects as part of a general fund- raising appeal in September, but received no contributions from that mailer.

Everett Cruz Martinez, a partner in an Irvine architecture firm, said he felt “very uncomfortable” when he received a solicitation letter from Lopez’s campaign. It came shortly after his firm got the district’s request in mid- September for architectural firms to resubmit bid proposals.

“It puts all of the teams in an awkward position, and it just seems inappropriate to mix those two at the same time,” said Martinez. Neither he nor his firm–Martinez Kuch–responded to Lopez’s request for money. The firm was not selected for any jobs.

Jim DiCamillo, an owner of WLC Architects of Rancho Cucamonga, said his office received a fund-raising fax from a board member “almost immediately” after his Sept. 12 bid interview. DiCamillo said he found the solicitation offensive, but couldn’t remember who sent it.

“We respectfully declined to donate ,” he said. “I called and I talked with someone with the campaign, and I had to explain it to them a couple of times. I said that I felt this was a conflict of interest, and that I didn’t believe it was appropriate.”

Chris Taylor, an architect with the HMC Group in Ontario, said he is used to being solicited for campaign funds by groups and elected officials throughout Southern California, but felt uneasy about the timing of the requests in Santa Ana.

“I would say that it was a little uncomfortable,” said Taylor, who recalled receiving several fund- raising requests in the weeks before his Sept. 7 interview. “It was an uncomfortable thing while we were interviewing.”

The HMC Group donated $ 250 to Lopez’s campaign. It was not selected for any of the school jobs.

Other architects agreed that campaign appeals are common, but that it is unusual to be solicited during the period of bidding for jobs. Some company owners said they found the entire application process odd, with their applications languishing for months, then being contacted in August, September and October, and told of their interview with as little as a day’s notice.

Not All Those Asked Were Upset by Pleas

Not all business owners were upset by the fund- raising appeals. Fernando Juarez, who has a small architecture firm in downtown Los Angeles and who gave $ 499 to Lopez, said such solicitations are to be expected.

“The American process works like this,” Juarez said. “There are many people who contribute to government officials so they are able to contact those officials.”

Juarez said he had been denied work at Santa Ana Unified for nearly two decades, until board members voted last year to expand the selection process in the hope of attracting more minority firms. Juarez’s company ultimately was chosen to design a new elementary school and to modernize another school.

“Sometimes it does take contributions,” Juarez said. “Sometimes it takes friendships. And sometimes it takes quality work.”

Still, government watchdogs said it was inappropriate for Santa Ana trustees to seek money from architects while they screened the same firms for future work–a task that previously was handled by district staff. In some cases, appeals for contributions were received by companies within days of their presentations in August, September and October before school board members, who served on a selection committee.

William R. Mitchell, the former head of the Orange County chapter of Common Cause, said board members showed poor judgment soliciting money from the firms because “there’s an implied quid pro quo” that donating would sweeten their chances. He suggested the school board adopt an ethics policy banning the practice. Trustee Rosemarie Avila urged her colleagues to do just that at an October board meeting, but her proposal died for lack of support.

Charles Lewis, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, said politicians across the country routinely solicit campaign funds from businesses that seek public contracts–but it’s something the public finds “disgusting.”

“It looks like there’s a pay-to-play situation,” Lewis said.

By soliciting the firms, board members “violated the spirit of conflict-of-interest laws enormously,” agreed Edwin Bender, research director for the National Institute for Money in State Politics, based in Montana.

“When you get closer to the community level, it has a particular smell,” Bender said.

Marilyn Bucchi, president of the California School Boards Assn., said it is vital for elected officials to avoid even the appearance of conflict of interest. “When you don’t, you lose public confidence,” she said.

Lopez Says All He Did Is What Politicians Do

Lopez said he merely did what politicians do– appeal for money at election time. He said architect firms were among those approached in 1999 when he and colleague Palacio were drumming up funds to support Measure C, a $ 145-million bond proposal to build new schools and expand existing ones. The pair raised $ 350,000 for the measure, which passed in March 1999.

The bond provided a needed financial boost for the district. Santa Ana Unified is among the most severely overcrowded in the state and hadn’t passed a bond since the 1970s. Among the new projects identified for funding were 22 school modernization projects and the construction of 11 elementary schools and two high schools.

Even before the measure passed, school board members agreed they wanted to encourage more architects to compete for the jobs, particularly more minority firms. In the spring of 1999, they scrapped a list of five architectural firm finalists–narrowed from 22 original bidders–that had been chosen by district staff in September 1998, then reopened the bidding.

When Lopez launched his reelection campaign in early December 1999, he said, he used the same list of architect companies solicited for the bond measure. He couldn’t say if any companies were added to his list after they submitted bids to the district.

“I had over 500 contributors to my campaign,” Lopez said, including hundreds of contributors who gave less than the $ 100 reporting threshold. He said he needed the money not only for himself, but for a slate of other candidates he hoped to help get elected.

Lopez said his campaign handled the donation requests and that he didn’t personally call anyone to ask for money.

The first wave of campaign donations from architects was received by Lopez and Palacio on Dec. 16, 1999, according to reports filed with the county registrar of voters. Within two weeks, Lopez received a total of $ 4,600 from seven architects. All were first-time Lopez contributors. In October, his campaign received $ 6,250 from architectural companies.

Palacio, soliciting money to pay off a 1998 campaign debt, received $ 4,275 in contributions from the same seven architecture firms in December 1999, and another $ 675 from one of the firms in February. Palacio had received a single contribution from one of the firms in 1998, according to his reports.

Among other board members, Davis–elected with Palacio in 1998–and Yamagata-Noji each received one contribution from a bidding architect in December 1999, campaign reports show. Davis got $ 650; Yamagata-Noji got $ 250.

Board member Avila, who also was reelected Nov. 7, was the only incumbent who reported no contributions from architects or firms seeking school district work, according to her campaign reports. She said she purposely didn’t seek campaign funds from architects.

“I believe they sent a message out that they were open for gifts,” said Avila, who has been at odds with Lopez on previous school board matters.

The first architectural contracts for 22 school modernization projects were awarded Aug. 25–nearly a year after district staff had submitted its original list of five finalists for the work.

On Oct. 10, the board chose firms to build 11 new elementary schools. Four firms that will build two new high schools and expand others were selected earlier this month.

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