Minority contract oversight shaken up
By MELANIE AVE, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- It was a dream job.
Few qualifications necessary. Little oversight. Hardly any competition. And good pay, ranging from about $100 to $40,000 per project.
The position: minority business consultant for the Hillsborough County school system. The job description: assist the district in employing small, minority firms on renovation and construction projects.
In the past three years, the district spent almost $450,000 on minority consultants -- enough to pay the salaries of 12 teachers.
But the lax manner in which the 13-year-old program has operated has drawn the anger of some minority business owners, who are calling for a complete program audit and reform. They think a program that was designed to help them may actually have cheated them out of work.
"It's a bunch of garbage," said Harry Pinero, president of the Hispanic firm H.P. Allen Constructors. Pinero said he has never heard from a consultant even though he runs one of the few minority-owned drywall and stucco firms in Hillsborough County. "I don't understand what they're trying to do."
Critics say four of the six former and current consultants employed by the school district's Office of Supplier Diversity program have significant problems:
Consultant Mike Garrick was recently dismissed from the program for improperly soliciting funds from subcontractors. Bob Morrison of Morrison & Associates was suspended from the practice of law by the Florida Supreme Court for ethical breaches that include taking client funds while ignoring his legal duties. Garrick and Deadrea Reese Sampson of Deadrea Reese & Associates have both filed for personal bankruptcy.
GPM Inc. received work as both a consultant and a subcontractor, an arrangement that ended only recently. Their minority status is now being reviewed by Hillsborough County officials.
District officials say they are trying to restore the program's integrity. They also are seeking additional consultants.
"We hopefully will continue to have improvement," said assistant superintendent Jack Davis. "That's a goal we have."
In the past year, the school district has ended its relationship with three of its six consultants: GPM, Garrick and Sampson. It currently employs Cheryl Hawkins of Brentika Inc., Thomas Huggins III of Ariel Business Group and Morrison.
Hawkins and Morrison say their work is helping struggling businesses and boosting the school district's minority numbers.
"There are so many contractors who have received contracts from the school district who had never worked for the school district at all," Hawkins said. "We don't guarantee the work. We just help provide that opportunity."
But Terrell Jacobs, former manager of the district's minority program, said he thinks the district should get rid of consultants altogether.
"I don't see a need for them," he said. "In my professional opinion . . . I don't find enough substance in their ability to get the job done."
The school district created its minority program in 1989 in hopes of improving its woeful record in hiring minority contractors. The district's goal is to give 10 percent of its dollars to minority and women-owned businesses.
The numbers have improved in recent years.
In 1999, the district funneled $25.6-million, or 19 percent of its dollars, to minority firms. Last school year, the total amount was less, $8.5-million, but the percentage of all work done by minority firms grew to 27 percent.
School officials say consultants deserve some of the credit because they help persuade construction managers to use minority firms. They also help minority firms put together competitive bid packages that allow them to win work.
But the cost of consultants has gone up in recent years. In 1999, the district spent $54,217 on minority consultants. So far this school year, spending has reached $172,941.
But cost isn't the only problem. Until recently, most consultants were simply interviewed and hired. There was no advertising, no bidding and no need to show qualifications.
Other than monthly reports of their phone logs, tasks and invoices, little was known about what the consultants did from day to day.
Now they're required to keep office hours at the minority program's headquarters on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and submit weekly reports of their activities. Their pay was recently reduced from $75 an hour to $60 an hour.
Those changes were prompted by several embarrassing revelations.
The St. Petersburg Times, for example, reported that GPM's minority certification status was denied last year by the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority after it concluded the firm was actually controlled by a white partner. Its status is now under review by Hillsborough County.
Days later, the district ended its relationship with Garrick after a subcontractor said Garrick asked him for $250 as part of tree-clearing work he was doing for the school system. Garrick said the money was used to purchase blueprints, not for anything improper.
School officials say they will ask for an independent auditor's evaluation of the minority program. And in the future, more screening will be done before consultants are chosen.
"It's a whole new deal now," said Henry Ballard Jr., the program's manager.
-- Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Hillsborough County School District has paid private consultants almost $450,000 in the past three years to boost the number of minority contractors working on school projects. But the district did not have specific qualifications for their hiring and did little oversight of their work. Now critics are calling for changes in the program.
Here is a breakdown of the district's spending on minority consultants since 1999:
Mike Garrick of AEI Management Consultants: $17,150
Deadrea Reese Sampson of Deadrea Reese & Associates: $13,693
Jonathan Graham and Thomas Bradley of GPM Inc.: $23,374
Cheryl Hawkins of Brentika: $14,418
Deadrea Reese Sampson of Deadrea Reese & Associates: $86,829
Jonathan Graham and Thomas Bradley of GPM Inc.: $30,448
Mike Garrick of AEI Management Consultants: $90,285
Cheryl Hawkins of Brentika: $31,755
Jonathan Graham and Thomas Bradley of GPM Inc.: $56,381
Mike Garrick of AEI Management Consultants: $37,125
Thomas Huggins of Ariel Business Group: $8,812
Bob Morrison of Morrison & Associates: $38,866
Total: $172,939 (as of Feb. 26)
Three-year total: $449,136
-- Source: Hillsborough County School District
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