Corruption and fraud plague the long-delayed LA Valley college theater project, the lawsuit alleges | Pro Club Bd

It is considered one of the most extensive theater and media arts spaces among California’s community colleges. Los Angeles Valley College’s sleek new center will feature four indoor theaters, an outdoor amphitheater, classrooms, a newsroom, radio station and faculty offices in 103,000 square feet of glass, steel, concrete and wood.

The $82 million center will enrich the education of Valley students—who are largely low-income and the first in their families to attend college—with marketable skills for the region’s creative industries and provide intimate performance spaces for the diverse artist community Jennifer Read , Chair of the College’s Drama Department.

But since groundbreaking in 2016, the project has been beset with problems. It’s four years behind schedule. It has incurred an unexpected cost of $12 million. After a protracted dispute over who is at fault, an independent arbitrator concluded in April that the Los Angeles Community College District was primarily responsible for the delays and violation of state requirements for “good faith and fair dealing” in construction contracts. The arbitrator ordered the district to pay Pinner Construction Inc. and its subcontractors $3.2 million in damages, according to the arbitration report available to the Times.

Pinner Construction’s leadership team tours the Los Angeles Valley College theater project site.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Pinner and two subcontractors have accused the LA County project team of fraud, corruption and racketeering by conspiring to delay construction of the theater so consultants could do more billing hours could collect.

The complaint alleges that taxpayers shell out $20 million in improper payments and that Pinner and his subcontractors were forced to spend more than $24.8 million on additional construction costs, overheads, consulting and attorney fees, and other expenses. In the lawsuit, Pinner is demanding that the district advise its advisors, including college project director Mark Strauss, senior vice president of DACM Project Management Inc.

“RACKETEERS acted in concert and maliciously conspired to delay the project, blame PINNER and earn millions of additional dollars in the process,” the complaint reads. “These advisors … must be brought to justice and held accountable.”

Strauss declined to comment and referred questions to the LA District. The district declined to respond to questions about the lawsuit or the arbitration award because officials, a spokesman said, were busy with a board meeting Wednesday.

Contacted outside of the meeting, CEO Gabriel Buelna said: “I trust our people. People file lawsuits. We cannot comment on them.”

People in yellow vests and hard hearts stand in a building under construction.

Pinner Construction officials examine the gutter system at their theater project at Los Angeles Valley College.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

The district, which educates 220,000 students across nine campuses in the nation’s largest community college system, has long been embroiled in controversy over its massive construction program. This program was funded by four separate construction bonds totaling $9.5 billion approved by voters since 2001. The district board of trustees voted last month to put a $5.3 billion bond — the largest to date — on the November vote.

In 2011, The Times documented financial waste, nepotism and mismanagement in several district projects funded by Bond measures. District Chancellor Francisco Rodriguez said reforms introduced since then, including an independent bond monitor, have prevented renewed mismanagement.

But in 2019, Rodriguez fired the district’s chief facilities executive, David Salazar, after raising red flags over cost overruns in the $3.3 billion construction bond program voters approved in 2016.

In his performance review of Salazar, Rodriguez rated him high in nine out of 12 categories, including accomplishments, job skills and problem solving, but said the leader’s leadership, communication and judgment fell short, contributing to a “diminished confidence” in him the trustees and overall led to an unsatisfactory rating. Salazar, in turn, filed a whistleblower complaint alleging retaliation for outing issues in the program, but it was dismissed by the district’s Bond Monitor.

Three years later, LA Valley College is the focus of the lawsuit brought by the project’s construction company.

Three people in a theater under construction.

The Main Theater at Los Angeles Valley College.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Dubbed the Valley Academic & Cultural Center, the project will bring together the theater arts and media arts departments into a single complex. Of the college’s 18,000 students, only 35 to 40 are currently majoring in theater — a third the number a decade ago — although more than 100 students are taking performing arts courses in other disciplines, Read said.

Other students study media arts, broadcasting, journalism, and photography, but enrollment numbers were not immediately available from college officials.

In previous board discussions, previous curators questioned the scope of the project for the relatively small performing and media arts programs. But Read said she hopes the new complex will attract more students and serve the area’s artists broadly by offering more intimate venues for performances than the nearby 1,700-seat Soraya Theater in Cal State Northridge.

“If you build it, they will come,” Read said, adding that she aspires to expand the classic theater canon of Shakespeare and Ibsen and incorporate more multicultural programming, including Chicano and Black theater classes.

The project, originally planned for 2018, has been significantly delayed.

People in orange or yellow vests in a building under construction.

Pinner Construction executives tour the site of the Los Angeles Valley College theater project.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

A demonstration of the project’s multiple issues lies inside the 430-seat main theater, a soaring space that rises 80 feet in the air. Behind its concrete and wood-paneled walls is a huge structure of woven rebar so heavy and tall that Pinner’s team had to build a massive wooden frame around it to hold it, said Newt Kellam, the firm’s chief administrative officer, in an interview.

Pinner wanted to use shorter pieces of rebar, no taller than 20 feet – which the umpire felt was industry standard. But district project managers thwarted this plan, forcing the company to use pieces almost three times taller and build the supporting structure for them.

The consultants insisted on the unusual design despite warnings from Pinner that it would delay the project by about 13 months and add $16 million in costs, Kellam said. The company’s lawsuit alleges that the consultants intentionally misled district administrators and officials on the issue of splicing or joining vertical steel and that disagreements about this resulted in a 15-month delay and an additional 2.5 millions of dollars to the consultants.

“It’s so overbuilt, it’s like a bomb shelter,” said Robert Boyington, Pinner’s project manager, during a recent tour of the site.

Deborah S. Ballati of JAMS, a private arbitration firm chosen by Pinner and the district to resolve their differences, identified several college counselor mismanagement. She said the district’s team had insisted the state architect had to give the go-ahead for the splicing Pinner requested, but had failed to seek approval, even though the estimated cost and time to do so was not excessive.

Consultants’ responses to Pinner’s requests for information on various design issues—more than 2,700, well above the industry standard for a project of this size—were “often late and incomplete, further compounding the design issues,” Ballati noted. She dismissed the district’s arguments that the contract documents clearly prohibited splicing, saying that Pinner was correct in assuming otherwise when developing its project timeline and budget.

In another construction dispute, Pinner District Advisors are ordering the demolition of siding that was installed on part of the building in 2018 after more than 40 inspections by various state and county officials, Pinner chief executive officer Dirk Griffin said.

The lawsuit alleges that the District team instructed Pinner to revise the order and instead install the panels in a manner that differed from manufacturer Trespa’s instructions – which would void their warranty – and from how the Panels have been installed on other LA Valley campus buildings in the past.

Problems with the exterior trim, audio-visual equipment and door hardware that have surfaced since September could delay the project by an additional 200 days and result in more than $1 million in additional compensation for the consultants, the lawsuit says.

Debbie Truong, a Times contributor, contributed to this report.

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