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DID A LIE SWAY SCHOOL BOND VOTERS?

Byline: Jennifer Radcliffe Staff Writer

A Los Angeles Unified School District bond consultant knowingly sent a mailer to voters claiming that school construction costs were under budget when they were actually as much as 25 percent over budget, according to an inspector general's report obtained Tuesday by the Daily News.

Tom Rubin, a consultant for the Citizens' Bond Oversight Committee, knew the district's massive building project was not 5.9 percent under budget when the mailer was sent to voters just a few months before the latest bond election, he told investigators for LAUSD Inspector General Don Mullinax. He said he regretted not correcting it, the report said.

The mailer was sent out in December 2003, just three months before voters approved a $3.8 billion bond issue for school construction and repairs, the third in recent years.

``Mr. Rubin's actions raise serious questions regarding his independence, objectivity and credibility in his important role as consultant to (the Citizens') Bond Oversight Committee,'' according to the report.

Rubin, who recently got construction of the Orange Line busway across the San Fernando Valley temporarily halted as the adviser to neighborhood opponents, billed the school district for 170 meals for his cousin and his cousin's spouse, saying he felt it was justified because he was not charging for hotel expenses, according to the report.

Rubin - who earns up to $150,000 a year heading the committee that oversees the district's first bond issue - declined comment. Mullinax also declined to comment on the confidential report, which was sent to school board members and selected staffers.

The bond committee's legal counsel, Joseph Buchman, an attorney with Los Angeles-based Burke, Williams and Sorensen, said he hasn't reviewed the investigation, but did not think there were any criminal violations of the law.

``You have to have an intent to have a crime,'' Buchman said.

Bond oversight committee members defended Rubin's performance, saying he single-handedly helped identify mishaps in the district's $10 billion construction program, funded by three bond measures since 1997.

For example, when Rubin was hired by the committee in 2001, he identified more than $600 million in renovations promised but never completed before the district ran out of money.

Committee members said the inspector general's report takes a cheap shot at what they referred to as an honest mistake.

``It's shoddy and factually inaccurate,'' said Robert Garcia, the committee chairman. ``If someone who worked for me wrote this, I'd fire them.''

Garcia, who co-signed the mailer with Rubin, said he only recently learned that the figure on the brochure was incorrect. He said the ``5.95 percent under budget'' phrase should have referred only to new school construction. But if repairs had been included in the calculation - and the mailer stated ``school repair and construction projects'' - the reference should have been to a 25 percent cost overrun.

District officials and Garcia said construction costs are roughly on budget now.

Superintendent Roy Romer declined to comment on the report, saying he had not yet been briefed by his attorneys.

A former transit official, Rubin has long worked as a paid consultant to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's transit unions. He also volunteered his services earlier this year for Citizens Organized for Smart Transit, whose lawsuit temporarily shut down construction of the MTA's Orange Line through the San Fernando Valley.

Rubin remains a paid consultant to the Bus Riders Union, which sued the MTA over bus service, resulting in a consent-decree settlement that requires the agency to reduce overcrowding on buses.

While Rubin's contract expired in June 2004, he still works for the committee, the report said. Garcia said his contract has not been renewed due to red tape.

School board President Jose Huizar said officials must be concerned if district credibility is being questioned. The oversight committee - of a type now required by state law - was designed to keep the district from having these very problems, he said.

``I will do everything in my power to get to the bottom of these allegations,'' he said. ``We can't allow something like this to jeopardize our ability to deliver schools for the next eight years.''

Huizar said he hopes to get the details in a closed-door meeting with Garcia and Rubin. ``I think an explanation is in order. We need that committee ... to set the record straight.''

Garcia said he plans to send a letter to the inspector general, defending Rubin's work.

Both Garcia and fellow oversight committee member Connie Rice said they're sure Rubin didn't knowingly provide the public with bad information.

``I just see no basis for casting this audit in the tone that it's cast,'' Rice said. ``The mistake was made. He owned up to it. ... There's no basis to say it was intentional.''

But Edwin Ramirez, a parent representative on the committee, said the committee was too eager to push things through - as in not verifying the figures on the mailer and checking Rubin's expenses - and was not living up to its mandate.

``The oversight committee just blindly passes everything. It's not the way it should be. It's not the way it's designed to be.''

Board member David Tokofsky said both of these independent watchdog branches - the oversight committee and the Inspector General's Office - might be wasting their time.

``They're getting caught up in who's the better watchdog, and it's not a dog show,'' he said. ``It's a $10 billion public-works program that needs at least two watchdogs - and no lapdogs.''

Jennifer Radcliffe, (818) 713-3722

jennifer.radcliffe(at)dailynews.com

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 22, 2004
Words:923
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