Consultants also paid as contractors
By MELANIE AVE, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- As a consultant for the Hillsborough school district, Jonathan D. Graham was paid thousands of dollars to get construction companies to hire small, minority-owned businesses as subcontractors.
But Graham ended up benefiting from the same program he promoted.
Records show he was paid both as a consultant for the district's minority business enterprise program and as a subcontractor, with the blessings of the school district.
In the last two years, Graham's company, GPM Inc. of Tampa, received $53,823 for consulting work. During the same period, the company received $11.74-million for work on 19 school construction projects as a minority business.
Now other contractors are crying foul. They say Graham, as a consultant, had relationships with contract managers. Even if he wasn't getting contracts on jobs for which he consulted, those relationships gave him an unfair advantage in winning other bids, they said.
"If they have the inside track as consultants, that's not fair," said Melvin McQuay, owner of Melkishmar Construction, a minority-owned contracting firm that has done work for the school district. "It sounds like they're feathering their own beds."
Graham did not return phone calls seeking comment.
School officials, who were aware of his dual roles, say they are now revising their minority business program and scrutinizing the credentials of their consultants.
Hillsborough assistant superintendent Jack Davis said Graham was told last week he can either be a consultant or a subcontractor, but not both.
"With any kind of bid work, people want the playing field level," said Davis, who said Graham was not consulting on the same projects in which he bid as a contractor. "It might have been pretty okay as it was, but (with) the perception of a conflict of interest, we felt it was better to eliminate that."
At least one other firm also was doubly paid. Until the school district terminated its relationship with her company a year ago, Deadrea Reese Sampson received school funds as both a consultant and a contractor.
Sampson did not return phone calls seeking comment.
The consultants issue is the latest controversy involving the minority program and the Hillsborough school system, as the district battles allegations of widespread mismanagement, shoddy construction and overspending. Most of the accusations were lodged by former longtime administrator Doug Erwin, who recently retired under pressure.
Several minority contractors have questioned why they were left out of about $200-million worth of projects that recently were awarded to large, nonminority companies who have done work for the school district for years.
Joseph W.J. Robinson, an African-American who owns an engineering consulting firm, said the school district should have notified local minority firms about the projects since it wants to boost contracting diversity.
School Board members have quizzed district administrators about minority contracting and plan to discuss the issue at their Tuesday meeting.
Board chairwoman Doris Ross Reddick said she is "quite concerned" about minorities being left out of contracting work.
"I think that the work should go around," she said. "I don't think one person should get all of the awards."
The district's minority business enterprise program, now known as the Office of Supplier Diversity, tries to steer at least 20 percent of its construction dollars to minority-owned businesses.
Last year, the district awarded $8.5-million to minority firms, or about 27 percent of its contracted bid work, according to a draft report. In the 1999-2000 school year, $25.58-million, or 19 percent of the district's total construction dollars, were awarded to minority contractors.
Consultants, officials argue, are key to that process.
A handful of consultants work for the school district. They teach minority businesses how to become certified with either the city, county or state and show them how to bid for projects.
They are assigned as consultants to construction projects and paid $60 an hour. They also are paid retainer fees, some up to $7,000, depending on the size and length of the project.
Until now, there have been no qualifications required of consultants and little oversight of their hours.
But Henry Ballard Jr., Hillsborough's minority business manager, said he is trying to improve accountability and ensure the integrity of the program.
"We want it to be fair to everybody," he said.
- Melanie Ave can be reached at 226-3400 or email@example.com.
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