Another local construction firm is suing Fresno Unified over its bidding process – this time regarding concerns about school board president Brooke Ashjian’s conflicts of interest.
In a suit filed in Fresno County Superior Court last Monday, an attorney for the Selma-based firm Lewis C. Nelson and Sons alleges Fresno Unified wrongly awarded a $1.8 million Fresno High project to another company, despite Nelson and Sons being the lowest bidder.
On Wednesday, the Fresno Unified school board voted to instead award the project to Davis Moreno Construction, the second-lowest bidder, and to pay $160,000 more for the work after concerns that Ashjian’s past business deals with Nelson and Sons created a “prohibited interest.”
But Nelson and Sons contends that’s not true, and that Fresno Unified is not only causing the company “great and irreparable injury” by rejecting its bid, but has also violated public bidding laws.
“The district has acted arbitrarily and capriciously, has failed to follow proper procedure, has violated its own bidding rules and has violated its ministerial duty as well as the duty required by law to award the contract... to the lowest responsible, responsive bidder who complied with California law,” said the petition, written by Sacramento attorney Michael Schoenfeld.
This is a terrible and unfair result that will hurt the district and our client.
Michael Schoenfeld,attorney for Lewis C. Nelson and Sons
While Fresno Unified staff and an outside hearing officer agreed that a conflict exists because Ashjian’s company, Seal Rite Paving, worked as a subcontractor for Nelson and Sons in 2013, Schoenfeld contends that Ashjian should be exempt.
An exemption to the law allows for conflicts of interest among elected officials that began at least five years before they were elected. Schoenfeld points out that while Ashjian was not actually awarded a project from Nelson and Sons until later, he bid on projects with the company dating back to 2007 – which establishes a business relationship within the five-year exemption.
In the petition, Schoenfeld urged the court to issue an immediate order to prevent Fresno Unified from awarding the project to Davis Moreno at Wednesday’s meeting, saying the contract should be “illegal, invalid and void.”
The court denied that request in a hearing on Wednesday, but Schoenfeld says the fight isn’t over. The case will now proceed to trial and will focus on the larger issue of whether Nelson and Sons can be awarded any projects with Fresno Unified so long as Ashjian is on the board.
“Unless overturned, our client effectively could not do school district work while Ashjian remains on the school board, and this is a terrible and unfair result that will hurt the district and our client who looks at the district as a viable entity to perform work for,” Schoenfeld said in an email Friday.
This is not the first time Ashijan’s outside business deals have been questioned in relation to his seat on the board. The California Fair Political Practices Commission has opened an investigation into similar allegations. Ashjian has not commented on the matter.
Davis Moreno, which is named as a “real party in interest” in the suit, is also suing Fresno Unified. That case is concerning a no-bid construction contract from 2012.