By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
JOE SANTOS KNEW A CONFRONTATION would be risky. For months, his boss had brushed off his concerns about possible waste on the federal earthquake-safety project that was supposed to be making hundreds of L.A.’s public school classrooms safer. But Santos didn’t want to be part of anything questionable — especially if he could get blamed.
The University of Southern California senior had answered a campus advertisement placed by Torres Construction, an Eagle Rock contractor with a long history of working for L.A. Unified School District. He had gone from part-time data-entry clerk to assistant project manager in three months, and by now had signed off on invoices totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. But on the night of February 18, 2002, in his final conversation with his boss, Tomas Torres, he realized that he might be in over his head.
Santos, as he would later allege in a series of legal actions, pointed to a batch of what appeared to be padded invoices for strapping file cabinets, bookcases and other heavy objects to school walls. He refused to back down on his claims that the company was cheating on its share of the $10 million FEMA project. He felt a jolt of panic when, he alleges, Torres told him, “Just sign the invoices. They can’t catch us. If there’s a problem, we’ll blame the inspectors.” It suddenly dawned on Santos that if anything went down the wrong way, his name would be all over the damning evidence.
Later that night, Santos returned to the office, grabbed a pile of invoices and split for good. But his ordeal was just beginning. And though details of his late-night visit remain in dispute, what is clear is that eventually he learned a lesson no USC communications class could teach him: Get in the way of an alleged federal rip-off in Los Angeles, and you do so at your own risk.
From the start, paying a contractor millions of dollars to brace furniture to a wall using removable straps seemed a bit odd to Santos. But he needed a part-time job that wouldn’t interfere with his studies. A product of private Catholic schools, he was good with numbers. The $12-an-hour data-entry job seemed perfect, at first. With 360 schools and thousands of cabinets and bookcases and water heaters — which could be braced for up to $120 a pop — the numbers added up fast. Santos began to wonder how closely the work was being monitored.
His unannounced visits to schools confirmed his suspicions, which he detailed in lawsuits: Fly-by-night inspections and hodgepodge floor plans made keeping track of the work nearly impossible. Not that allegations of inadequate work, untrained workers and his company’s tendency to inflate bills seemed to matter. The school district’s inspector was cozy with Santos’ boss, and seemingly more interested in long lunches and Lakers tickets than in checking classrooms for earthquake safety. The whole project looked like a wasteful enterprise on par with that notorious boondoggle, the Army’s $1,500 toilet seats.
Over the next five years, Santos would find out just how hard it is to pierce the layers of bureaucracy that surround such a boondoggle. Particularly when the federal government and the nation’s second-largest school district fail to uncover evidence of wrongdoing, teachers unintentionally tamper with evidence by moving furniture around in the very classrooms in need of safety upgrades, and local police and the district attorney are willing to turn the tables and go after a whistleblower.
TORRES CONSTRUCTION’S RELATIONSHIPWITH L.A. Unified always seemed strange to Santos. Now 26, he’s trying to make sense of it all. Santos cuts a striking figure in his black suit with open-collar shirt and square-toed shoes. Occasionally, he flashes a broad smile that shows off his awkward good looks. Left fatherless at age 13, he grew up in Glendale as the de facto man of the house, looking out for his sister and mother. Still without a degree, he owns a limo company, and has had to borrow money from his mother.
Santos felt like an outsider at Torres Construction, a family business owned by Timoteo Torres. Torres’ son Tomas runs the company. Torres’ daughter Martha is in charge of accounting. Torres’ other sons, Ismael and Esteban, also work for the company. The work force varies by project, but the most consistent employees are family, and friends of family.
For years, the company’s main client has been L.A. Unified. Santos says Torres Construction took an unusual path to winning the lucrative contract. After the Northridge earthquake of 1994, FEMA doled out $168 million to L.A. Unified to repair hundreds of schools across the district; $10 million of that went to the peculiar task of strapping heavy objects to walls, known as seismic bracing. Though a competitor bid lower to brace refrigerators, water heaters and TV monitors, Torres Construction radically undercut them on a single item: file cabinets. Whereas the contract paid up to $20 per file cabinet, Torres agreed to brace them for $8.95 each. Santos couldn’t help but notice that L.A. Unified listed more than 23,000 file cabinets — twice as many as any other item — and that file cabinets were weighted higher than almost any other item.