Louis M. Cruz managed a $616-million building campaign at Long Beach and had worked for the Los Angeles Community College District. Neither local school knew of his corruption case in Texas.
By Gale Holland and Michael Finnegan, Los Angeles Times | http://lat.ms/k6MAza
July 3, 2011 - A Texas architect who admitted paying bribes to influence the awarding of school construction contracts in that state later helped manage major construction programs at community colleges in Southern California.
Most recently, Louis M. Cruz was a project manager for a $616-million building campaign at Long Beach City College. Previously, he held similar responsibilities at the Los Angeles Community College District, managing $190 million worth of construction.
Cruz was a central figure in a corruption scandal in San Antonio, Texas. He pleaded guilty in 2003 to a felony count of conspiracy to commit bribery, and he implicated community college and public school officials in accepting payoffs. Under oath, he admitted distributing at least $130,000 in bribes.
Sentenced to two years in prison, he was released in 2006 after serving 11 months.
The prosecutor who handled the case expressed astonishment that Cruz was able to find work managing public construction in California.
"After he'd been to prison? That's incredible," said Cliff Herberg, first assistant district attorney in Bexar County, Texas. "Didn't they wonder where he was for two years?"
Cruz worked at Long Beach City College from 2008 until last fall as an employee of Cordoba Corp., a Los Angeles company that manages construction at the school. College officials said he was relieved of his duties at the campus in October because of complaints that he was causing delays in completing projects. Officials said they did not learn about his Texas criminal record until later.
Earlier, Cruz served as a project manager at Mission College in Sylmar, one of nine campuses in the L.A. Community College District. At the time, he was awaiting sentencing in Texas and was employed by Gateway Science & Engineering of Pasadena.
Gateway and college district officials said they did not know about his guilty plea until after he returned to Texas in 2005 to serve his prison term.
State authorities said they were unaware of any law in California that would have barred Cruz or any other convicted felon from working on community college construction projects.
Officials at Long Beach City College say they do not screen employees of private contractors, such as Cordoba and Gateway.
"We don't want to get into the business of trying to intervene in their hiring decisions," said college president Eloy Oakley. He added, however, that the college's lawyers were looking into whether contractors could be required to conduct background checks on employees assigned to the school.
Oakley said he had no indication that Cruz engaged in any misconduct at the campus. Officials of the L.A. college district said there were no problems with Cruz's performance at Mission College.
Efforts to reach Cruz for comment were unsuccessful.
Cruz, now 60, received a bachelor's degree in architecture with high honors from the University of Texas at Austin. While still in school, he was an intern at a San Antonio architecture firm and later was made a partner. He eventually started his own firm.
In 2002, a Bexar County grand jury indictment described him as part of a "political machine" that sought to "corruptly influence" members of the San Antonio City Council, the Alamo Community College District board and several school boards.
Three months after he was charged, Cruz began cooperating with prosecutors. In a sworn statement, he told authorities that he stuffed envelopes with cash and gave them to corrupt officials during clandestine meetings at a truck stop, a laundry, a hotel bathroom and other locations.
Cruz said that during one meeting, he asked Robert "Tinker" Garza, then chairman of the Alamo college district, how much he and interested construction companies would have to pay to secure a $14.4-million contract. According to Cruz's statement, Garza wrote "$180,000" on a hotel napkin, then put it in a glass of water to destroy it as evidence.
Cruz said he initially gave Garza an envelope containing $5,000 to pass along to another college district board member. When Garza and other officials continued to ask for "help," Cruz said, he doled out an additional $13,000. The board selected Cruz's firm for the architectural contract.
"I knew 'help' meant money," Cruz said in the sworn statement. "I also understood that the money was a bribe. If I didn't give the money, then I would not keep working."
In all, Cruz said, he distributed more than 40 payments totaling at least $130,000 from himself and contractors to college and public school officials from 1997 to 2002.
Nine people were convicted in the scandal, including two former San Antonio City Council members, Garza and two other community college trustees, and a former school board president.
After Cruz entered his guilty plea in 2003, he lost his license to practice architecture in Texas. His sentencing, however, was delayed for two years while he assisted prosecutors with their investigation. During that period, he worked in California as a construction manager at Mission College.
Art M. Gastelum, owner of Gateway Science & Engineering, said he hired Cruz on the recommendation of a major contractor whom he declined to identify. Gastelum said the recommendation was so enthusiastic that he didn't conduct a background check on Cruz.
Gastelum said that even if he had, it would not have turned up anything. Because Cruz had not yet been sentenced, his conviction would not have appeared in a criminal records database, Gastelum said.
"He interviews extremely well, " Gastelum said of Cruz. "He's very charming."
In 2005, Cruz "just disappeared," Gastelum said.
Adriana Barrera, then president of Mission College, said Cruz's family members told college officials that he had gone on a leave of absence because of a car accident.
In fact, Cruz had returned to Texas to begin serving his sentence at the state penitentiary in Huntsville.
A Mission College instructor later found news reports about the case on the Internet, and the faculty requested an investigation. Darroch "Rocky" Young, then chancellor of the Los Angeles college district, concluded his review of the case by saying that Cruz had "served the college well."
After he was released from prison and had fulfilled the terms of his probation, Cruz went to California. Maria Mehranian, managing partner of Cordoba Corp., said in an email that the company was unaware of Cruz's "background in Texas" when it hired him in 2008.
At Long Beach City College, Cruz oversaw construction of a new fitness center, an academic building and other projects.
College Vice President Ann-Marie Gabel said campus officials asked Cordoba to remove Cruz last October because "it appeared to us he couldn't handle the workload."
Cruz left the college but continued to work for Cordoba until shortly after a Feb. 27 article in the Los Angeles Times mentioned his criminal record. Within days, his photo and biography were pulled from Cordoba's website. Cordoba told the college that Cruz's last day with the company was March 1, a college spokeswoman said.