New Allegations in BHHS Construction Imbroglio

A lawsuit filed last month in Los Angeles County Superior Court levies specific charges of mismanagement and fraud in a Beverly Hills High renovation plan facing increasing scrutiny. 

A veteran construction project supervisor, William Lora, has sued his former employer, ProWest Constructors, for wrongful termination, race discrimination, and retaliating against him for reporting kickbacks involving school district bond manager Team Concept Development Services. 

The complaint notes a retrofit of the 92-year-old high school, which was originally supposed to take 30 months and cost $150 million, may now take five years longer and bill $130 million more. The money is pulled from city bonds that Beverly Hills voters greenlighted in 2008 and 2018. 

Lora has claimed that Donald Blake, the CEO of Team Concept Development Services, and Jeff Rising, ProWest’s senior project manager for the high school modernization, worked out a scheme where ProWest would seek more of the bond money.  

“Blake was getting a significant bonus on each change order that was authorized,” reads Lora’s complaint, which was filed Oct. 13. “Mr. Blake was essentially receiving a ‘kickback’ from the cost of additional monies appropriated to complete the project.” 

ProWest is a Wildomar-based company. In 2017, it was selected construction contractor on the Beverly Hills Unified School District (BHUSD) Redevelopment Project. Asked to respond, ProWest sent questions to its outside counsel, Randolph Finch, of the Finch, Thornton & Baird law office in San Diego.

“ProWest is an equal opportunity employer and denies all allegations or suggestions of wrongdoing,” Finch stated. 

“ProWest expects to be vindicated in this lawsuit but on advice of counsel cannot further comment at this time,” the lawyer continued. “ProWest is very proud of its work for the Beverly Hills Unified School District and looks forward to the successful completion of the High School modernization project.”

Broken bonds

Blake is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit. Messages left with him were not returned. In July, the BHUSD Board of Education chose to not renew its contract with Team Concept Development Services, instead selecting Santa Clarita-based construction consulting firm Fonder-Salari as its new bond manager. 

At the board’s Nov. 8 meeting, members approved an amended “time and materials” contract with Fonder-Salari in which up to $12.8 million in city bond money will go toward the company over the next 36 months. 

Raphael Guzman, assistant superintendent of business services for the district, estimated that “conservatively” the city is saving $7.6 million over the next three years by switching to Fonder-Salari from Team Concept Development Services prior rates. 

One potential savings is personnel costs. Mary Wells, the board president, noted that Fonder-Salari’s program director – the company is helmed by Alisha Fonder and Amin Salari – will bill $173 an hour. Blake billed $275 per hour. 

Wells said that the city now had a construction bond manager charging “market rates.”

“I am proud of this board for all of the actions that we have taken to get to this point,” Wells told the Courier. “I can say with confidence that this bond program is in a markedly better place.”

But while the board is using a new bond manager, they have not moved on from ProWest. Wells and Superintendent Dr. Michael Bregy acknowledged the lawsuit, but both stated they are taking a wait-and-see approach.

“Our school district is aware of the complaint and the allegations contained therein,” Bregy told the Courier.  “Our district recognizes that, at this point, they are only allegations.”

Added Bregy, “Unrelated to the complaint, the district continues to take efforts to assure that the projects are performed to our district’s standards.”

Lora has worked in construction for four decades including as a superintendent with Becker Construction. ProWest hired Lora in August 2021 as a supervisor in renovating the 92-year-old high school. 

Lora identifies as Hispanic and immigrated to the U.S. as a child from Colombia. Lora claims disparate treatment, such as being assigned more people to supervise and as the only manager not provided nearby overnight accommodations. Lora claims he was also socially ostracized. On one occasion, he overheard colleagues using a Hispanic slur to describe him. 

The job got worse, Lora claimed, when he reported safety issues to other project managers only to see his concerns ignored. One concern was that Rising was “in cahoots” with the project’s state inspector, Michael Barbera. 

A message left with Barbera, who is no longer the inspector on the project, was not returned. 

In March, the lawsuit stated, Lora met with Rising and another ProWest official and was informed of his dismissal. The firing was not explained, the lawsuit states, other than by the fact that ProWest was “going in a different direction.”

A case management conference is set for February.