By Anna Pulley
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The time: February 2001. The place: Moscone Center. The event: a trade show for those involved in the roofing industry. Milling about in the crowd is Janet Campbell, a former UC San Francisco architect who was fired after blowing the whistle on allegedly rigged construction-bid procedures at the sprawling Parnassus Heights medical school.
Campbell sidles up to a sales representative for W.P. Hickman, an Ohio-based manufacturer of roofing materials. The rep pitches his firm, saying that it tries to win jobs by helping customers draft construction contracts that favor the use of Hickman products, according to a transcript of the exchange. This practice, called writing proprietary specifications, is illegal in most states since it can limit competition.
What the rep doesn't know is that Campbell is carrying a hidden camera for a Cincinnati TV station investigating bid rigging in public-school roof contracts. The salesman's comments bring media and government heat to bear on his company -- in Ohio.
Corruption in the roofing industry has become a hot topic in some parts of the country. A few months before Cincinnati's WLWT-TV camera captured the sales rep's remarks in San Francisco, Hickman and another roofing manufacturer, Tremco Inc., also based in Ohio, had been accused by New Jersey officials of manipulating public construction bids by doing exactly what the hapless sales rep described: influencing design criteria.
Campbell, a San Francisco resident, is notorious in national roofing circles. In 1999, UCSF canned her after she contacted the FBI with allegations that architects, engineers, and project managers employed by the university regularly wrote proprietary specifications favoring Tremco products in return for kickbacks. Her charges were featured in an exposé of corrupt practices by roofing-material manufacturers published by the Dayton Daily News in 2000.
In San Francisco, however, Campbell was unable to interest the daily press in a potential roofing scandal. Steve Bennish, the Dayton Daily News reporter who broke Campbell's story, says he was surprised the San Francisco press did not cover her saga. "Sure, roofing and hot tar are dull in and of themselves," he says. "But the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars -- perhaps billions of dollars -- in the whole country is not boring."
Shortly after being terminated, Campbell, 49, filed a whistle-blower lawsuit in federal court against the University of California and her boss, Gary Nelson, alleging that UCSF officials violated California's public contracting law by specifying the use of brand-name materials in dozens of roofing jobs at UCSF starting in 1982. After Campbell spoke out to law enforcement, the university retaliated by terminating her, her lawsuit claims.
An FBI investigator said his review of Campbell's proprietary-spec allegations indicated possible wrongdoing, but the local U.S. Attorney's Office decided against extending the probe for unexplained reasons. Two state agencies investigated Campbell's claims, and at least one of those probes appears to be ongoing.
Government investigators in New Jersey concluded in 2000 that public officials in that state had inserted proprietary specifications from Tremco and other roofing manufacturers into multimillion-dollar construction projects -- resulting in overpriced contracts and, in some cases, misuse of government funds. (In San Francisco, Tremco's products are used in capital projects undertaken by UCSF, the San Francisco Unified School District, and the S.F. Housing Authority.) In recent years, journalists in Ohio, Illinois, and Kansas have taken close looks at proprietary-spec writing by Tremco and other firms that has resulted in excessive payments for roofing materials.
Campbell found a source of potential moral and investigative support last April when a San Jose supplier of heating and air-conditioning equipment also leveled charges of bid rigging against UCSF and the UC regents. The contractor uncovered a recent audit from UC Davis which concluded that unnamed construction contractors and vendors had given gifts -- including "a variety of golf tournament gratuities" -- to employees of the university's architectural and engineering departments.
Campbell has converted her apartment into a kind of national clearinghouse for information about corrupt practices in the roofing business. Using a wheezing copy machine and an ancient fax, she supplies building-industry reformers, lawyers, government investigators, and journalists with reams of documents and analysis. She does not charge for her services; her goal, she says, is to make the world safe for ethical architects.
Created as a nearly sovereign entity by the state constitution, the University of California empire -- and no other word but "empire" truly describes the extent of its wealth and political clout -- is composed of 10 semiautonomous nations -- its campuses -- stretching from San Francisco to San Diego. A board of regents appointed by the governor governs it. This year, the UC system's $3.4 billion budget will finance the education of 192,000 students by 157,000 faculty and staff. Six hundred million dollars of the imperial treasury is reserved for building new facilities and maintaining older buildings. (In San Francisco, UCSF controls more than 100 buildings at 15 major sites, including the new 43-acre biotech campus under construction in Mission Bay.)
Each campus is administered by a chancellor and runs its own affairs, including the writing of design specifications. Each campus also has an internal auditor responsible for investigating allegations of corruption. But the institution does not take kindly to whistle-blowers -- witness the firing of employees who smoked out corruption at the UC-run nuclear laboratories. The university did not investigate Campbell's allegations before it terminated her employment.