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Feeding Frenzy 

Meet the team behind the Belmont Learning Complex, California's most expensive high school

Wednesday, Mar 4 1998
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Page 4 of 7

Wedin responded, "I didn't make those up, and I didn't make the work up." He added that he worked at Shambra's direction, based on an earlier school-board authorization to explore the project.

But in some respects, Wedin was working even harder than his invoices imply. As a consultant, he jetted up and down the state on various projects quite apart from his L.A. contracts. In Wayne's world, it made perfect sense that he and Orange County architect Ernie Vasquez would become partners in a consortium that pitched a $30 million construction deal to the government of Panama. Problem was, Wedin also was serving as the school district's head negotiator with the Kajima team, which included Vasquez as chief architect. Nor was that Wedin's only tie to Vasquez. As early as April 1994, just when the competition to build Belmont began in earnest, Wedin was exploring development opportunities with Vasquez in La Habra, Alhambra, Bell Gardens and elsewhere.

The Architect

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Ernie Vasquez is a principal in the architecture firm most responsible for Belmont's design, the Costa Mesa-based McLarand, Vasquez & Partners. The Panama deal involving Wedin is just one of several potential conflicts of interest raised by the multiple roles Vasquez took on in connection with the Belmont project. In three years, Vasquez's project fees grew from an initial $110,000 contract to $6.1 million.

Vasquez did not respond to repeated requests to be interviewed for this story.

Vasquez's first Belmont-related assignment, issued in mid-1994, was to sketch the concept for a mixed-use project there, help evaluate the teams competing to build the school and independently oversee the school's design by the chosen team. For much of that year, as competing teams hammered out their proposals in talks with Shambra and his consultants, Vasquez sat on the school district's side of the negotiating table.

A mid-December evaluation of the developers, however, recorded an interesting migration. Kajima's Temple Beaudry Partners, the eventual winning team, listed as its architect M, V & P International, a corporate affiliate of McLarand, Vasquez & Partners. Somehow, Vasquez was now working for both the district and a private developer simultaneously.

Early on, some of the competing bidders were uneasy, or at least confused, about the role of Vasquez and a later written "clarification" that reserved a vaguely defined share of the job for Vasquez. "Should the developer desire to use their own architect in the implementation phase of the project, the school district requests that Mr. Ernie Vasquez serve in at least an overall supervisory architect role." Elsewhere the document notes that Vasquez "will not be a part of competitive teams. Once a developer is selected, then Mr. Vasquez will be a part of that team as previously described."

Vasquez's quick jump to Temple Beaudry Partners has contributed to suspicions about bid rigging at Belmont. Did Vasquez capitalize on his inside knowledge and quickly move to the team that was going to win the bid? Or did the Temple Beaudry team, headed by Kajima, read the writing on the wall and grab Vasquez to ensure its own success?

"As time moves on, it becomes clear that Vasquez wants to become the project architect," one inside district source told the Weekly. "He probably gets a formal proposal from Kajima to join that team. And he asks us to release him from his contract. Some of us greeted that with skepticism."

Skepticism aside, members of Shambra's crew say Vasquez's dual role had no effect on the choice of Kajima because Vasquez, despite the explicit terms of his contract, was never used to evaluate bidders.

The team that finished second in the bidding also used Vasquez, but in a limited role. The third-place finisher didn't use Vasquez at all.

Shambra finally closed out Vasquez's $110,000 contract in a letter dated January 25, 1995, opening the door to a more profitable association. Still, the letter was sent more than a month after a district analysis had listed Vasquez as part of the Kajima team.

There's little doubt that Vasquez scored big on the altered arrangement. By late 1996, close to the time that the Panama deal was being organized with Wedin, Shambra successfully urged the school board to commit to Vasquez's design fees, estimated in a report to the school board as $4 million in one reference, and between $4 million and $5 million in another. By February 1997, the tab had reached $5.3 million. At that time, a confidential analysis by an internal oversight committee asserted that the architect's fees were "$1.7 million above the state-allowable amount." By October 1997, Vasquez's contract with the developer set fees just over $6.1 million. This fee apparently includes the retail design, which means that, for now at least, the school is subsidizing something it was supposed to profit from. If a promised swimming pool and second gym are ever built, the architect could receive additional compensation.

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