In August of 2011, PublicCEO covered the release of a new study analyzing the impacts of Project Labor Agreements in public construction. Two weeks ago, we covered a five-minute debate over a proposed PLA ban in the City of San Diego. So when PublicCEO made a public appeal for stories, leads, and requests, it wasn’t surprising that one of the issues we heard about was Project Labor Agreements.

The debate between the pro- and anti-labor groups is not only expected, it is somewhat old hat. However, the dynamic that exists between Tom Torlakson and the ACSA – two entities with closely aligned missions that came to drastically divergent conclusions – is a new addition to the story.

It was the discovery of two potential conflicts-of-interest that made an intriguing topic become a fascinating story.

PublicCEO looked into the information and potential misinformation that surrounded last year’s National University study, and whether the veracity of its conclusions had survived critique and attack.

The players involved in creating the study: National University; the USC Keston Institute of Public Finance and Infrastructure Policy; and the Associated Builders and Contractors California Cooperation Committee, who provided a grant that accounted for 20 percent of the study’s budget; and the Association of California School Administrators.

Opposing the findings of the study: UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment; the Building Trades Industry Association; State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.

Tom Torlakson issued a letter on September 8, 2011 to all Superintendents and Charter School Administrators. In his letter, he expresses that he has “been deeply troubled by the claims made recently by opponents of project labor agreements.”

“Project labor agreements are a valuable tool to help local education agencies complete quality projects on time, reduce maintenance costs, assure worker safety, and maximize local job creation,” he continued.

Citing a study by the UCLA Labor Center, Torlakson says that there are concerns about the study’s “focus, methodology, and the way in which results are reported.”

“Superintendent Torlakson has supported PLAs since at least when he was a Supervisor,” said Craig Chegler, Policy Advisor at the Department of Education. “It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that he opposed the conclusions of (the study).”

However, Torlakson’s chief constituency – the Superintendents, school board members, and school administrators – viewed the National University and UCLA reports rather differently.

In a letter dated December 20, 2011, the ACSA writes that, “We have found the original study by the National University System Institute for Policy Research (NUSIPR) to be credible.”

The claim that the National Study was inherently biased due to grant money received from ABC-CCC was also dismissed. “The research has been validated by an independent third-party review of its methodology and conclusions by USC’s Keston Institute for Public Finance and Infrastructure Policy,” the letter read.

“In fact a subsequent NUSIPR response challenges the UCLA Labor Center’s critique, and the work by USC only solidifies the credibility of the original report. For example, it was suggested that the original study didn’t account for land acquisition costs, when in fact the opposite is true.”

How two organizations with such closely aligned missions can come to such divergent conclusions is bewildering.

Recognizing that California’s public construction industry is often compared with the Wild West, PublicCEO dug deeper and investigated potential ulterior motives.

Two documents – an FPPC filing by Tom Torlakson and page 12 of the 2010-2011 Annual Report from the UCLA Labor Center – both show substantial financial contributions from the state’s Building and Construction Trades Council.

Tom Torlakson received a donation of $5,000 from the Building Trades Council less than three weeks after he sent his letter undermining the National University Study.

“I’m not aware of that donation,” said Chegler, who also works for the Torlakson’s 2014 re-election campaign. “So I don’t think there is a link between the (donation and letter).”

According to a 2009 IRS 990 Form, Robert Balgenorth, the President of the California Building Construction Trades Council, is the principal officer of the California Construction Industry Labor Management Cooperation. That group, which is a partnership between business and labor such as the CBCTC, provided a grant of $250,000 to the UCLA Labor Center (as shown in the UCLA Annual Report referenced above).

[Editors note: Originally, the UCLA Annual Report showed a donation of $450,000, as was reported in this article. That was an incorrect total. The report, and this article, now accurately reflect a donation of $250,000. The $450,000 UCLA reported was a total of several years.]

In an interview, Daniel Villao, the State Director for the California Construction Academy at UCLA’s Institute for Labor Research and Education, discussed the National University study and the ILRE’s response, as well as potential conflicts.

“(The National University Study) was funded by the Associated Builders and Contracters and the ABC has a very anti-worker and anti-union agenda,” said Villao. That funding, Villao said, led to National University “manipulating data to tell a story.”

When asked if similar accusations could fairly be directed to his own department, Villao said:

“I think that that might be fair, but I don’t think that it would be fair (to say) that the data is manipulated based upon that view. Let me qualify that, though. The reality is that, I, personally, in my work experience, started as an apprentice, and worked in the union construction environment, before going on staff for a union, and then finishing my education and getting my degrees. Now I work for a group that represents a group of unions.”

Villao continued, “For as much control and I have as director, I certainly do influence the work. But I have been crystal clear in translating the information accurately.”

However, the grant was not disclosed in the critique of the National University Study, and their critique actually attempted to impugn that reports findings because of the grant money received.

“We didn’t really think of (disclosing the funding) at the time,” said Villao. “But I’m happy to make that disclaimer… I don’t think it’s not understood that much of the work we do involves the union environment.”

The National University researchers included the nature of the funding they received, including the grant from ABC-CCC, on the first page of the study.

“This study was underwritten, in part, by the Associated Builders and Contractors, California Cooperation Committee,” read the disclaimer. “All conclusions, errors and omissions are the sole responsibility of the authors. We thank ABC-CCC for their support.”

“We’re as transparent as we can be,” said Villao. “We’ve really created a body of work that makes the case for the use of (PLAs).”

[Editor’s note: This article has been updated from its original version. We apologize for the misspelling of Daniel Villao’s name. Also, we now report that the California Construction Industry Labor Management Cooperation is a partnership between business and labor, and have removed the line originally that opined that they were the non-profit arm of the CBCTC.]