Fresno Unified’s end of no-bid contracts brings end of big donations

Richard Spencer, owner of Harris Construction, Inc. is photographed in the museum at the company’s headquarters. His firm has been used by Fresno Unified School District for construction projects, like the building of Gaston Middle School.
Richard Spencer, owner of Harris Construction, Inc. is photographed in the museum at the company’s headquarters. His firm has been used by Fresno Unified School District for construction projects, like the building of Gaston Middle School. Fresno Bee file

The Fresno developer who was the biggest donor to Fresno Unified’s last school bond measure – and financially has reaped the benefits of its passage – has contributed nothing to the current Measure X campaign.

The unusual halt in contributions from Richard Spencer, the head of Harris Construction, comes amid a federal investigation of no-bid construction projects he was awarded by Fresno Unified through a controversial “lease-leaseback” system the district has stopped using since it was subpoenaed in 2015.

Leaseback contracts allow school districts to avoid the competitive bidding process and handpick the contractors who will do their projects. Fresno Unified’s use of leaseback contracts with Harris Construction has landed it in court, with questions raised about whether it has led to a pay-to-play system.

After Spencer gave about $30,000 to the committee to pass Measure Q, a $280 million bond Fresno Unified passed in 2010, he was awarded nearly $115 million in leaseback contracts paid for by Measure Q funds. Up until then, Fresno Unified had taken the traditional route of publicly advertising projects and awarding them to builders who made the lowest offers.

While Spencer – a longtime political contributor – continues to give to area school bond measures, a search of campaign finance statements filed with Fresno County show there have been no contributions made to Measure X by Spencer or Harris Construction.

Harris Construction donated $15,000 to a political action committee that helped pass the State Center Community College District bond in June, and Richard F. Spencer & Affiliates has donated thousands in support of local school bond measures in the past month, including those for Sanger Unified, Central Unified, Caruthers Unified, and Firebaugh-Las Deltas Unified, according to documents filed with Fresno County.

When asked about his lack of funding for Fresno Unified this election season, Spencer said via email that he, along with The Bee, Mayor Ashley Swearengin, Fresno City Council members Steve Brandau and Esmeralda Soria, county Supervisor Andreas Borgeas, “and a number of other community leaders” support Measure X.

“This is great news for our community,” Spencer said. Spencer has declined numerous attempts by The Bee to discuss his past contracts with Fresno Unified.

But critics have questioned that supposed support of Measure X, which would mean $225 million for schools if passed on Tuesday. While there has been plenty of visible opposition to Measure X, no campaign committee has been created in support of it.

Committees have been formed for much lesser school bonds – including Caruthers Elementary School, which has a “Yes on Measure V” committee in support of its $6 million bond measure.

Jay Wierenga, with the California Fair Political Practices Commission, seemed stumped by the absence of a campaign committee. He said if someone wanted to donate at this point, they would have to create a committee themselves.

“Not sure how to answer that. What would people be giving to?” Wierenga said in an email when asked how people can contribute to the Measure X campaign. “If you give money to a candidate/committee, the committee is responsible in its reporting to list your name, and employer.”

The lack of a Yes on Measure X committee has raised alarms for critics, which include some of Fresno Unified’s own trustees: Carol Mills and Brooke Ashjian. The two school board members have actively campaigned against the school bond measure, pointing to the ongoing investigation of past bond money and what they say is a lack of transparency with the public.

At a news conference on Thursday, the trustees and Fresno County Lincoln Club leader Tal Cloud criticized the only sign so far of positive advertising for Measure X. One Putt Broadcasting has been running radio ads promoting the bond measure, and according to an independent expenditure report filed with Fresno County, has spent more than $15,000 of its own money to do so.

Leaders of the news conference said the radio ads are suspicious, questioning One Putt owner John Ostlund’s ties to Spencer. Ostlund said he is a friend of Spencer’s, but denied anything improper has occurred.

They also have questioned Brandau’s and Borgeas’ surprising change of heart last month. The officials initially denounced the bond measure, but later said they were supporting it, saying the district had supplied more information about its spending plan. Cloud says that’s not the real reason, though.

“They received a lot of pressure from the donor communities to change their position. I don’t believe they flip-flopped for the right reasons,” Cloud said. “They can say it or not say it, but they both received a lot of pressure from donors to their campaigns, and that’s unfortunate.”

Ashjian added: “They received phone calls from a single donor that put pressure on them, and you can ask them who that donor is.”

Spencer donated to both Brandau’s and Borgeas’ campaigns in 2012.

Brandau – who previously had compared the district’s handling of Measure X to former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what’s in it” statement – said no one influenced his decision to support the measure.

“My mind was made up by my own investigation. I didn’t connect with anybody ahead of time,” he said. “I never heard from any donors.”

Fresno Unified spokesman Miguel Arias said there is a less ominous reason for no Measure X campaign committee.

“There was every indication that we were not going to have any formal opposition; therefore, you don’t need to do a full-blown effort,” Arias said, pointing to a poll in June that showed 75 percent of 600 likely Fresno voters would support Measure X. “But a couple of board members have made it more challenging than expected.”

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays