Thursday, April 14, 2005

Cook County Minority Contracts Questioned (again.)

Well, according to the Chicago Sun-times today, there's been a shocking development: County officials defend scrutiny of minority firms (by staff reporter Steve Patterson). Evidently, someone thinks there may be some Chicago-style funny-contract business going on in the administration of Cook County! (Okay, please, please don't yawn. Corruption is an important issue, all the more when you have to hear it every other day.) The problem has arisen over a program that gives special access to county contracts for businesses owned by minorities and women. There are only six county employees keeping an eye on the validity of claims of minority status of over 900 companies, who make that claim in order to get the "inside track" on county contracts. According to Mr. Patterson's report,

At a hearing Wednesday, contract compliance administrator Betty Hancock Perry said "we're not looking at everything with a jaundiced eye" because she doesn't "think all vendors are lying" about their minority status.
Why, they wouldn't do that, would they? This is the "defense of scrutiny", apparently. Seems to me that the refusal to scrutinize is being defended. But the upside is that Betty Hancock Perry seems to be a real think-positive, glass-half-full kind of gal. So, what's the problem? From Mr. Patterson's Sun-Times article:
Minority contractors and some commissioners said they had doubts about the county's minority contracting programs and commitments from prime contractors to hire them.
Doubts about what, you ask? Again, Mr. Patterson:
In 2000, a federal judge said the county's minority hiring policy for construction jobs was flawed.
Don't you just love clear information? Flawed how? Well, no specifics, really. Except this:
Perry also had to answer criticism about a jail contract given to SBC and Crucial Communications, a minority firm that records show was run by a woman who has been dead since 2004.

Perry said the county is waiting for a response to questions from Crucial. But no similar steps have been taken against Faustech, a contractor the City of Chicago stripped of its minority status Tuesday. Faustech was at the center of a 2000 hospital contract scandal now under federal investigation.
Aaaah. Now that's a flaw. A resurrection of the old dead-voter idea. (Yes, the pun was intended. Glad you're awake.) Now we're on familiar Windy City territory. Scandals and doubts, doubts about scandals. But precisely what scandal? Wasn't able to tease that little detail out of this particular Sun-Times article. The picture in The Daily Southtown is a bit clearer, in this article by staff writer Jonathan Lipman:
Cook County's top contract official has no plans to investigate three companies in the county's minority-owned business program despite Chicago's accusations the companies lied about who owns and runs the firms.
But contract compliance administrator Betty Hancock Perry said she will investigate Faustech Industries, which she didn't know until Wednesday was ruled a fraud by a federal judge four years ago.
Poor Ms. Hancock Perry. So much for her touching faith in human nature, and un-jaundiced eye. And what was the problem with Faustech Industries?
Problems with Faustech first arose in 1999, when it won part of a $49 million county contract for hospital equipment. The company is owned by Faust Villazan, a Hispanic man who has donated to and golfed with county commissioners.
A competitor sued and U.S. Magistrate Judge Geraldine Soat Brown threw out Faustech's deal in 2001. The judge ruled Faustech didn't really do anything in the deal, and that prime contractor Siemens Medical Systems picked Faustech as a partner only because Villazan had political connections to county commissioners.
Here's another brightly detailed gem from Jonathan Lipman's article in the Southtown:
The county's program went under the microscope Wednesday at a meeting of the contract compliance committee, the panel's first meeting since 1997. [Emphasis added.]

Chairwoman Bobbie Steele (D-Chicago) called the meeting after the county began investigating Crucial Communications, a minority-owned firm that has a phone contract with the county. Media reports revealed the woman listed as the chief operating officer has been dead for more than a year.
Want to bet the good citizens of Cook County have been paying the Contract Compliance Committee to meet more than once per decade? One more snip from Mr. Lipman's fine article:
"People are afraid to talk about this," Commissioner Mike Quigley (D-Chicago) said. "The deal with Crucial ought to be enough for anyone to say ... we ought to be concerned."
Ya' think?

(Updates & related links: WLS/ABC 7: Stroger Hospital contractor charged with fraud)

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