No Justice Center, No Peace

Delayed and overbudget, the fate of downtown’s Regional Justice Center—billed as a one-stop shop for all things judicial, it’s become a multimillion-dollar, litigious boondoggle—awaits its (opening) day (in court)

Damon Hodge

It looks like someone's playing connect the dots. Silver-dollar-size pieces of blue masking tape dot the swanky, imported-from-Italy tile on the 17th floor of the Regional Justice Center. Throughout the hallways, butt ends of tape flair upward—the easier to pull them off of the drying, painted-over abrasions, indentions and scuff marks on the tawny floor. In a hall west of the mostly complete Supreme Court chambers, two men in white jeans and shirts kneel in front of six small paper cups; each has a different shade of brown epoxy. Dabbing paintbrushes in one container, then another, sometimes another, the blue-collar Michelangelos look for exactly the right color to fill in the problem areas.

"There are scratches like these on floors all over the building," Clark County Aviation Department Director Randy Walker notes as he leads a tour of the 18-story facility on Clark Avenue and Casino Center Boulevard. Grouping district, justice, Las Vegas municipal and state Supreme Court proceedings into one building, the RJC is designed as a single destination for court-related services. But mostly, it's been a cause for migraines—a big, multimillion-dollar shop of horrors.

Watching the duo swab imperfections, Walker is frustrated. It's a "quick fix," he says, and "unacceptable." Recruited to fast-track the behind-schedule (two years) and overbudget ($15 million, and counting) center because of his experience with massive airport construction projects, Walker is relatively powerless to stop such quick fixes to the imperfections turning the RJC into a boondoggle. "The builder [AF Construction] is telling them to do these things."

Further touring would reveal more problems: door handles to the judges' chambers that feel like sandpaper; floors sloping nearly 2 inches in some offices; windows that don't keep rainwater out; tar spots on fifth-floor carpet; mismatched and misplaced parts; wrong colors; vandalism. Walker estimates repairs will top $10 million, or about the same the county has withheld from the contractor since March 2003.

That's right, the county hasn't paid AF in 15 months.

It's that contentious—lawsuit contentious.

And maybe it should be. After all, you're paying for the project. From its initial approval in 1996, the cost of the entire project (the RJC, an expanded Clark County Detention Center and a juvenile justice facility) has zoomed from $120 million to $185 million.

Oh, and don't close your wallets yet.

There's litigation to contest. Dueling lawsuits from AF Construction and the county seek millions in redress. Even if the county wins, remediation costs could continue to go upward. And if the county loses ...

Either way, things are likely to get more expensive before they get better.

Your Valley of Boondoggles

When it's all said, built, legally contested and done, the Regional Justice Center could easily work like envisioned: as a hub for all things judicial.

It's a beautiful facility. The atrium view is light and airy, with quotes from ancient figures like Augustine carved into stone facades. Of its function, County Manager Thom Reilly says: "It was sold as a one-stop shop to citizens. If they get a ticket, they wouldn't have to go all over the city to get it resolved. It centralizes court operations so people don't have to go to all these different buildings."

Or the RJC could become the biggest taxpayer boondoggle in city history. Which would be saying something.

This is, after all, the city of Neonpolis. Financed partially by 32 million taxpayer dollars, the $100 million project has become a neon elephant whose main attribute has been failure. Now it's trade bait: Mall owner Prudential Real Estate Investors announced plans to sell it. Mayor Oscar Goodman says any sale must include refunding millions to the city.

Then there's the $28 million Nevada Highway Patrol radio fiasco, which saw the department purchase frequencies without consent from the Federal Communications Commission, then spend $17 million to buy equipment to replace an $11 million Motorola system that didn't jibe with the off-limit frequencies. As of April, there were still delays in switching local troopers to authorized wavelengths.

Henderson State College is a boondoggle in the waiting. The 2-year-old school has no true campus and, now, no president—former chief Kerry Romesburg decamped last month to a private Florida college. State university system brass are hinting at pressing lawmakers for a taxpayer bailout. We're safe for now: The state conditioned a $13.75 million taxpayer gift on the college ponying up $10 million; Romesburg left after raising only $1 million. To this list, UNLV historian Hal Rothman adds the Fremont Street Experience—he contends the giant Lite Brite hasn't worked as unambiguously as hoped.

What's makes us so susceptible to regular pillaging, Rothman surmises, is that the state's libertarian governmental structure stresses "freedom for business over the freedoms of individuals." Witness the countless smaller government boondoggles (overpaying for apartment complexes, awarding contracts to builders who've screwed up on previous projects) and a growing list of potential whoopers, such as massive rebates given to the billion-dollar World Market Center. On the federal level, there's even the $7.8 billion Yucca Mountain nuclear repository. "Yucca Mountain," Rothman says, is a particularly egregious boondoggle "because you've got Nevada's public paying for a project that it expressly doesn't want."

Asleep at the Bulldozer Wheel

It's nearly inevitable, Walker says: Build a big project and something will go wrong.

"It's happened at McCarran a few times," he says. Still, he's never seen a project as precarious as the Regional Justice Center. "You have to find humor in it or it would drive you crazy."

Passed in September 1996, a voter-approved bond allotted $120 million for a juvenile justice facility, an expanded county jail and the RJC. Pegged at $80 million, the RJC was to be operational by January 2002—judges adjudicating, lawyers lawyering, clients being served. By then, construction had barely begun.

Overseeing the project at the time was county manager Mike Alastuey, a former school district administrator. Persistent delays prompted county higher-ups to pull him from the project in January 2002, as the jail and RJC were a year behind schedule. Thrust into a lead supervisory role, Reilly made a blunt assessment: AF Construction couldn't handle the job. (It'd won the contract via a since-changed state law requiring the county to procure the lowest bids.)

So Reilly recruited Walker, who brought along brain power from Bechtel, a company that's worked on various airport addendums. Both watched as project costs ballooned—$120 million to $169.9 million to $185 million now—and only the juvenile facility got completed on time. Hard bargaining on Walker's part—"Do it right or do it over," he says during the tour—meant costs could continue spiraling upward, and they did. Last fall, the County Commission approved a $33 million bailout to complete the RJC. The county has since sued AF Construction for $35 million.

"This is the poster project for what was wrong with the low bid process," Reilly says. "When you build projects like this, you can have a poor contractor as long as there's good oversight. Or you can have poor oversight if you have a good contractor. But you can't have poor oversight and poor contractor."

Reached at home, Alastuey had little comment about Reilly's assessment. "I think certainly the county has its interest to protect, and Thom speaks for the county."

As we elevator down, I ask Walker if there were flaws in the county-approved designs, as has been alleged. If so, isn't the county somewhat culpable for the RJC debacle?

"There are always going to be design issues, this is not an overriding issue," he says. "We had inspectors here all the time."

Tour Bust

"The Regional Justice Center will be the first ‘smart courthouse' design in the United States. Served by a fiber-optic backbone, the RJC will be linked to the Clark County Detention Center for video arraignments and implementation of state-of-the-art evidence storage. The structure is designed to accommodate a wide range of public service agencies, including the Las Vegas City Attorney, Clark County Clerk, Clark County's Adult Detention Services and District Attorney, thus simplifying public access to our courts and supporting agencies. Through careful planning and design a ‘new' core will be created establishing a strong foundation for a true downtown center in Las Vegas. The estimated completion date for this facility is 2002."

—Clark County District Court web site

"Where are you going?"

—Sign on the first floor

"It doesn't look 17 stories," quips a lady as a tour party stands in a parking lot adjacent to the expanded jail. (It's actually 18, but the top floor isn't in use.) Listen close enough and you can hear the rumblings from the jail's inhabitants. Some bam bam on the windows. Others hoot and holler.

Cross Casino Center and slink through an opening in the fence and you're right next to the RJC. Construction workers flit in and out the various entrances. Tempting smells of chorizo, carne asada burritos and pollo waft from the mobile catering truck as the hard-hatted line up for grub.

The exterior is beautiful, earth-toned and rectangular for five stories, with floors six through 18 rising Stratosphere-like into the sky. From this vantage point, nothing seems unduly screwy.

Eleven of us pile into an elevator and ride to the 17th floor. We tour top to bottom, peeking at problems on various stops. There are a notebook's worth: defective roof work. Sloping floors. Scarred tile. A walled panel of rocks traversing several floors: It was supposed to be a water feature, but only inches from an escalator—water, kids and an escalator equals a recipe for disaster. A ground-floor wall that was put in wrong. The wall of quotes is in the wrong place, five feet too far left.

Most of it is touch-up work. Costly touch-up work: about $10 million.

"All this stuff not only damages the building but hurts taxpayers," Walker says.

So why weren't county inspectors on site to ensure project compliance?

Walker insists county eagle eyes were present and diligent: "AF has a responsibility when they bid on something to do it correctly. Yes, you should have oversight but that doesn't mitigate the responsibility to do the job right."

Faith No More

Mark your calendars. Or don't. July 14 is the ready-by date for the RJC.

Once the occupancy permits are issued, and the building is turned over to the county, Walker says it'll take at least six months to bring in the furniture and install the audiovisual equipment, meaning the earliest the RJC will open is in 2005—three years behind schedule. Even that's optimistic. Remember, there are lawsuits—the taxpayer-funded $33 million bailout only covers project costs, not ligitation.

AF fired the first salvo in what's become a firestorm of legal claims. AF alleges defamation and breach of contract and seeks $4 million in redress in an August 2003 lawsuit; the case is in arbitration. The county's $35 million lawsuit might not be resolved so amiably. Remember, it hasn't paid the developer since March 2003.

AF's spokeswoman, political consultant and former county administrator Terry Murphy argues that the county, not the company, muffed on contractual issues. AF used specified materials and built the facilities according to county-approved design.

"The contract called for a dispute-review board, which has not been in place for well over two and half years. AF would have preferred to handle this via that contractually spelled-out process, but the county never reinstated the board after three of its members resigned," she says. "AF brought seven claims to the board before it was resolved and all were found to be in favor of AF," she says.

As for being millions over budget: "AF Construction has not exceeded any budget because the company hasn't been paid by the county. They [workers] have been out there working with no pay for nearly 18 months. The workers are being paid by the bonding company [Fireman's Fund Insurance]."

That Fireman's Fund continues to pay workers bodes well for AF's chances in court, Murphy contends. "Had they determined that AF was at significant fault, they could have taken AF off of the project. You have to think a $2 billion company that does this and only this would make a clear assessment on their calculation of risk and would not have assumed the risk if it wasn't worth it. They chose to stick with AF."

Murphy says a tour led by AF personnel would've highlighted many of the problems Walker identified but demonstrated the county's liability. Like the mismatched colors on doors: AF installed the color they were supposed to install. And despite the legal drama playing out in the media, AF maintains a good reputation, largely because of its 30-year history in the community—the company built hotels in Jean and Primm, residence halls at UNLV and the $44 million expansion of the convention center in 1997.

"Paul [Faulkner, AF's owner]," Murphy says, "will walk away with his reputation intact when all is said and done."

Doing it The Right Way

A large-scale allotment of public funds doesn't always equal boondoggle. Example: the Clark County School District.

Say what you will about the number of students in local classrooms and the quality of what they learn in them—at least the kiddies have places to sit. In 1998, voters approved a $3.5 billion bond to build new schools and repair dilapidated campuses. Stipulated in the bond was that the school district would have 41 of 88 schools completed by fall 2004. They've erected 50 (and the number of schools has been bumped up to 90).

Credit the bird-dogs. Proposals must pass the muster of the citizen-run Bond Oversight Committee, the Local Oversight Panel for School Facilities (which examines bond issues and how money is spent) and a state planning commission. Only one third of the $725 million apportioned for school modernization has been allocated, but within a year, says Fred Smith, the district's director of construction management, the modernization plan will be on schedule.

"We've got several entities in place that make sure we're being good stewards of taxpayer money," Smith says.

And, believe it or not, the county has gotten it right before. The $38 million bailout, paid by you, for publicly funded University Medical Center is working, as losses have plummeted.

Time Will Tell

Sparks are flying in the staircase, embers flaring then fizzling as steel gnashes steel. Welders at work. "Stop the weld," tour leader Jeff Frisch, of Bechtel, tells them. We hoof it from the fifth floor to the gorgeous, airy atrium on the first.

As it's designed, the busiest courts—justice and traffic—occupy the lower floors, while judges chambers commandeer the top ones. A lady asks about the unsightly, flagpole-high steel beams stationed about eight feet apart. Not much can be done aesthetically: They're part of the smoke evacuation system; they'll open the gigantic windows if the place is consumed with smoke.

But the beams are a minor issue. The major one, of course, is when the public will get to the Regional Justice Center. Could July 14 signal the beginning of the end of this high drama and, better yet, the end of the taxpayer pillaging. Walker isn't counting his chickens.

"I have no faith in that date."

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