Fresno Unified to rebid project after trustee’s conflict of interest

Fresno Unified administrators are recommending that the school board rebid a $9 million construction project after concerns arose that a trustee’s involvement posed a conflict of interest.

Lewis C. Nelson and Sons was the lowest bidder on a construction project for Figarden Elementary School in January and named Seal Rite Paving – which is owned by Fresno Unified Trustee Brooke Ashjian – as the subcontractor for the project.

Fresno Unified was set to officially award the project to Nelson and Sons at a school board meeting Wednesday but now plans to rebid it next month, saying that Ashjian had a prohibited financial interest in the project.

“Rejecting all bids and rebidding the Figarden project will minimize uncertainty and risk,” Fresno Unified Chief Operations Officer Karin Temple said in a memo to trustees last week. “This is an important project for the school and community  and it is anticipated that the project can still be completed within the targeted time frame, Summer 2018.”

Ashjian said he was unaware that his employee had bid on a Fresno Unified job and that as soon as he was notified he was willing to drop the job. Nelson and Sons asked to replace Seal Rite Paving last month with a new subcontractor, with Ashjian’s consent.

But Merced-based attorney Kenneth Mackie – who won’t disclose who hired him – said Ashjian could face criminal charges for deliberately applying for the job.

Mackie – who said he is working on behalf of “Fresno Watchdogs for Ethical Bidding” – alleged that Ashjian not only knew that his company bid on the project but provided Nelson and Sons insider information to make the bid “artificially low,” pointing out that the firm’s bid was about $250,000 less than the next lowest bidder. Both Ashjian and Dwight Nelson, president of the firm, deny those accusations.

Ashjian is liable for violating the conflict of interest statutes.

Attorney Kenneth Mackie

Mackie said the project should instead go to Bush Construction, the second-lowest bidder. A federal investigation of Fresno Unified’s no-bid contracts with Bush Construction and Harris Construction firms is currently underway.

“Ashjian’s company submitted a subcontractor’s bid to Nelson, who in turn submitted its bid to Fresno Unified. Ashjian, as president and CEO of Seal Rite Paving, stood to profit from the contract. While he claims ignorance, the knowledge of his estimator/engineer is deemed to be known by Ashjian. Thus, indirect evidence shows Ashjian is liable for violating the conflict of interest statutes,” Mackie said in a letter to Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson and School Board President Luis Chavez last week.

Mackie refused to identify the people behind the watchdog group that hired him.

“My job is to find out what I can  and the board makes the decisions. Whether they refer to the DA, that’s not my call,” he said Tuesday.

Ashjian, who has been an outspoken critic of Hanson and other Fresno Unified officials, denied any foul play and said the project is a nonissue.

This thing stinks like raw onions and morning breath. It’s complete fantasy.

FUSD Trustee Brooke Ashjian

“The deal is dead. It’s been dead. How can there be any allegations when I’m no longer involved with anything to do with the project? I won’t have anything to do with it,” he said Tuesday. “This thing stinks like raw onions and morning breath. It’s complete fantasy.”

Ashjian also takes issue with the mysterious watchdog group that allegedly employs Mackie.

“Fair and ethical bidding? Where have they been? Why weren’t they here before the FBI got here?” Ashjian said. “(Mackie) has an ulterior motive and is representing a faceless businessman, which to me, means a coward. It’s time for Batman to reveal who’s behind the mask.”

Nelson said he had no knowledge that Seal Rite Paving was ineligible for the project.

“We didn’t have any idea  We didn’t even think about him being a school board member,” he said Tuesday. “Afterward, I guess they found out they couldn’t bid the job.”

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays