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The state office in charge of enforcing strict earthquake standards for public schools has been closely intertwined with the construction industry it regulates, records and interviews show.
For at least a decade, top managers with the Division of the State Architect were members of a lobbying group, the Coalition for Adequate School Housing, which repeatedly has pushed for less regulation and oversight of school construction.
School construction regulators mingled at conferences, golf tournaments and dinners and held policy briefings for the lobbying group and its clients at monthly meetings. The majority of the group, known as CASH, is made up of school architects, construction engineers, contractors and inspectors who have projects under review by the state architect’s office.
Members of the group also have included the construction industry’s own clients – including school districts in San Francisco, San Diego, San Jose and Pasadena – as well as the Division of the State Architect, the chief regulator of school construction standards.
Regulators were even told that taxpayers would reimburse their membership dues, according to meeting minutes in 1997. Taxpayers also paid for a state architect’s office booth at a CASH conference in 2007, according to e-mails reviewed by California Watch.
This close arrangement lasted from at least 1997 to 2006, records show, during a school construction boom fueled by billions of dollars in state bonds approved by voters.
The entire state architect’s office also was listed until at least 2008 as a member of CASH’s federal lobbying group, Californians for School Facilities, often joining lobbyists on trips to Washington, D.C., to meet with chairmen of the House and Senate education committees and with U.S. Department of Education officials to push for more federal funding for school construction.
Tom Duffy, legislative director for CASH and former superintendent of the Moorpark Unified School District, acknowledged that state officials had been members of his lobbying group. He said the relationship helps promote “state and local understanding and contributes to conflict resolution.”
“We believe that top-down, authoritarian state policy creation and control is counterproductive to meeting local needs,” Duffy said.
Steve Castellanos, the California state architect from 2000 to 2005, became a member of CASH two years after he took over the top regulatory job at the division. He traveled to Washington with other members of Californians for School Facilities on lobbying trips, records show. Castellanos said he saw the organization as a useful partner to help improve the quality of school construction.
Top administrators in the state architect’s office and the Department of General Services, its parent agency, said it would be routine for regulators to discuss new programs and other issues with the lobbying group. But officials said they were unaware that employees of the state architect’s office had joined the organization.
Yuli Weeks/California WatchDavid Thorman, former state architect, ordered his office to examine more than 1,000 school construction projects completed with unresolved safety problems.
“I never knew about this. … If I had known this, I would have told them to quit. I think it has the potential to be a conflict, and it shouldn’t happen,” said former State Architect David Thorman, an appointee of then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“I’m sorry, I did not remember this,” Thorman said in a later interview.
Thorman maintained that the relationship between regulators and CASH had not led to any corruption. But, he said, “there is a real possibility” that lobbyists had “captured” school regulators.
“You’ve got a system that’s broken,” Thorman said.
The lobbying group has a budget of about $2.2 million, tax records show, including revenue of about $920,000 from its annual conference and $550,000 from membership dues. Last year, the group paid its Sacramento lobbying firm, Murdoch, Walrath & Holmes, $500,000 to represent its interests before various state agencies, including the state architect’s office.
Even after the state architect’s office stopped paying membership dues to CASH, the relationship between regulators and the construction industry endured.
The lobbying group met with Thorman in late 2008 and early 2009 about limiting the legal liability of school districts and building contractors that didn’t comply with the Field Act. A year later, in August 2010, the state architect’s office stopped requiring that contractors verify that their work had followed state-approved plans – a hallmark of the Field Act since it was adopted in 1933.
Acting State Architect Howard “Chip” Smith, who said he has never been a member of CASH, said the changes simply eliminated unnecessary paperwork. “The contractor’s verified report contributes very little to safety,” he said.
But a former chief structural engineer for the state architect's office, Patrick Campbell, said that without the verified reports, the state loses an important tool to keep contractors honest and hold them accountable.
“You will have nothing to go after them,” Campbell said, “if you later find out they did something wrong.”
In January, after California Watch began questioning whether the policy change was legal, the state architect’s office reversed itself. Verified reports are once again required from building contractors.
The ties between the lobbying group and state regulators have continued in other ways.
The Department of General Services, the parent agency of the state architect’s office, has been holding workshops since last year with key school district officials, architects, engineers and builders on how to reform school construction oversight.
Duffy, the legislative director for CASH, was appointed last month as chairman of a committee charged with revamping the Field Act certification program at the state architect’s office.