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Heat builds on minority contracts

Sunday, May 08, 2005
Daily Southtown
by Jonathan Lipman

Pressure is growing to change Cook County's minority business program, which has so far avoided the level of scrutiny applied to a similar program run by Chicago.

The Cook County Board last week withheld payment from a minority contractor under investigation by county officials. But commissioners approved payment to a different contractor who is also under investigation.

County board President John Stroger has defended the program, saying it does not suffer the same problems as Chicago's program. Several companies on the city's list that claimed to be minority owned were revealed as fronts for white men.

Board members allied with Stroger have sided with him in the past. But Tuesday, only Commissioner Jerry Butler (D-Chicago) voted against a motion from Larry Suffredin (D-Evanston) to temporarily withhold $146,280 from Faustech Industries on a computer equipment contract.

Suffredin said he didn't want to release the money until the county investigation is complete. Butler said Faustech should get paid if it did the work.

Withholding payment from contractors could jump-start the county's investigations. Contractors will likely lobby the administration to get the money they're owed.

Stroger repeated his defense of the program Tuesday, but voted in favor of delaying payment to Faustech, whose dealings with the county are also the subject of a federal probe.

"Whether you're black or white, green, yellow or what ... you're supposed to do things in accordance with the law," Stroger said. "If it's not being done in accordance with the law, they should be penalized.

"I've asked the inspector general to do it like he used to with the Chicago Police ... give us all the facts so we can try to correct the situation."

The county's minority business enterprise program is designed to give a boost to companies owned and run by minorities and women. Every major county contract is supposed to give at least a portion of the work to one of the minority-owned companies on the county list.

Four companies Chicago has accused of fraud also are on the county's list. At least three of them have gotten county work. County contract officials began investigating those companies last month.

A fifth company, Crucial Communications, is also under county investigation after officials learned owners lied about who was running the company.

Chicago officials booted Faustech out of the city's minority business program last month because it was not a legitimate minority business. They said it was really a broker, selling items to the city at marked-up prices after buying them elsewhere.

Chicago officials have accused Chicago United Industries of doing the same thing.

But only two county commissioners objected Tuesday to that firm getting paid.

Commissioner Joseph Moreno (D-Chicago), one of Stroger's strongest supporters, voted "present" on paying a $205,903 bill from the company. Stroger's chief antagonist, Commissioner Mike Quigley (D-Chicago), voted "present" on re-authorizing the company's fuel contract.

"Until their status is clarified, I'm not going to vote to approve anything," Moreno said. "But it's a contractual obligation. ... I didn't want to vote one way or the other."

Stroger has no plans to block payment to Chicago United, spokeswoman Caryn Stancik said.

"The president will concur if the board has a concern. The board didn't raise a concern with Chicago United," Stancik said.

Quigley said he thinks other commissioners would have tried to block payment to Chicago United if they realized it was under investigation.

"I suppose it hasn't made the headlines yet," Quigley said. "A lot of this will come out, these investigations take a long time."

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