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Environmental firm accused of 'egregious' overcharging of L.A. Unified School District

April 21, 2010 |  2:49 pm

Officials have abruptly halted work with the firm that managed environmental work in the $19.5-billion school construction program of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The move arises from a critical district audit alleging that Palm Desert-based Questa Environmental Consulting repeatedly overcharged and that L.A. Unified managers looked the other way, resulting in more than $2.5 million in questionable billing.

The negative report comes in the wake of an unrelated indictment of a regional construction director on conflict-of-interest charges, tarring the nation’s largest school construction and modernization effort. Officials continue to characterize the overall construction program as clean and successful. To date, 87 of 131 new schools have been completed as well as thousands of modernization projects.

The audit from the office of the inspector general, quietly posted online earlier this month, accused Questa of billing for time unrelated to its district contract, charging higher hourly rates than justified and exceeding maximum annual billings, among other things.

The conduct was “so egregious,” said district Inspector General Jerry Thornton, that his office took the unusual step of recommending Questa’s termination as well as the discipline of two supervising district employees.

Thornton described the findings at Wednesday’s meeting of the district’s Bond Oversight Committee.

Questa had no immediate reaction to the public airing of allegations, but already had submitted a lengthy written defense to the auditors' original draft report. The company denied any wrongdoing.

“Questa did not falsely bill work,” managing partner Jon A. Sanchez wrote to the district. And, at all times, he added, district officials were aware of Questa’s actions, while guiding and supervising the company. 

Auditors singled out two district managers for particular criticism. L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines suspended them with pay March 1 for more than a month, district officials said. A district spokesman confirmed the substance of the action, though not the specific details. Both employees have since returned to work pending further possible disciplinary action. 

An arraignment is scheduled for April 29 in the conflict-of-interest case, said Mark Fall, associate general counsel for L.A. Unified.

Cortines has asked L.A. City Controller Wendy Greuel to oversee an independent audit of construction-related issues in the nation’s second-largest school system. That probe is expected to cost about $100,000, Fall said.

-- Howard Blume