Certifiably Mad

Say "Percy Green," and some Hispanic businessmen see red

Tony Angel, a son of Cuban immigrants, was pursuing a master's degree in economic development at the University of Illinois-Springfield in 1994 when he landed an internship with St. Louis Development Corp., the agency charged with fostering the city's growth. The next year, Angel's SLDC internship turned into a full-time job.

As a neighborhood-development strategist, Angel was one of nearly 100 employees at SLDC doing economic-development-related work. The nonprofit corporation contracts with the city to provide a range of critical services, from planning to approving corporate tax breaks and grants. Since 1991, the agency has also had the controversial role of deciding who gets to participate in the city's minority set-aside programs.

Among Angel's coworkers -- although their paths didn't cross at SLDC -- was Percy Green II, who began working for the agency shortly after voters elected Freeman Bosley Jr. the city's first African-American mayor. Green was put in charge of the SLDC department that certifies minority- and women-owned business enterprises (known as MBEs and WBEs). It's an important function for a city that, as public policy, has a commitment to supporting disadvantaged businesses: The city's goal is to have 25 percent minorities and 5 percent women involved in all city projects, but only MBEs and WBEs certified by Green's department are considered legitimate for the purposes of meeting those goals.

Percy Green: "A lot of minorities don't understand."
Jennifer Silverberg
Percy Green: "A lot of minorities don't understand."
Green says he runs "the most stringent" MBE/WBE program in the area.
Jennifer Silverberg
Green says he runs "the most stringent" MBE/WBE program in the area.

Angel knew Green's reputation and admits being a little awestruck -- the longtime civil-rights activist is still revered for his hellraising during the 1960s and early '70s and for orchestrating the unmasking of the Veiled Prophet nearly 30 years ago. But Angel's admiration turned to anger after he decided to leave the city and go into business for himself.

After working for a couple of years as an executive for a minority-certified contractor, Angel started the Gonzalez Cos., his own site-preparation and demolition company, and applied last year for MBE certification. To qualify, an applicant must submit a broad range of business records, and, in early February 2000, Angel submitted copies of loan papers, lease agreements and tax returns. Caralin Valentine, one of two SLDC certification specialists, spent half-a-day interviewing Angel, watching him work in his office and inspecting the yard where he stored his equipment. Valentine recommended approval of Angel's application. The only step remaining was a vote later that month by the five-member Certification Review Board. But the scheduled February board hearing was canceled. In March and again in April, the board delayed action on the application. Anxious, Angel called Green, who serves as chairman of the certification board, for an explanation. According to Angel's account, which Green vigorously denies, Green told him that the city wasn't about the business of helping Hispanics. "He tells me he is there to serve the African-American male, and he said it very bluntly," Angel says.

Despite Green's alleged brush-off, Angel kept insisting that the certification board take up his application. On July 12, it did -- and promptly voted to turn him down.

Angel didn't take rejection well.

For years, members of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, a 19-year-old, 130-member business association, have been growing increasingly concerned about the city's certification process. Tony Angel's case seemed to crystallize their complaints, and the businessmen decided to press their case with Mayor Clarence Harmon. What they got was a meeting with Harmon's right-hand man, deputy mayor Julian Boyd. Representing the Hispanic Chamber was its president, Gilberto Pinela, along with chamber members Sergio Cuevas, Hector Barron, Al Gonzalez and Gonzalez's lawyer. The businessmen each had a story to tell about their experiences with Green and SLDC --Pinela's application for certification was denied in 1996; Cuevas' and Gonzalez's companies failed to get certified in 1999. And now Angel's company had been rejected as well. The stories seemed to add up to one conclusion for them: The city didn't want to do business with light-skinned Hispanics.

"The denial of certification to Hispanic business owners has been going on for years," says Pinela, a Puerto Rican immigrant. "The common comment they get when denied is 'You're not black.'"

Green angrily rejects the accusation: "I would never say that." Indeed, Green says that since the city agreed in 1990 to settle a lawsuit brought by the Minority Contractors Association, he pressed to ensure that nonblack minorities were allowed to participate in the city's affirmative-action program. "I recognized that it applied to the red man, Orientals and Hispanics," Green says.

Warranted or not, the Hispanic Chamber's complaints got results.

First, supervision of Percy Green and his two-person staff was transferred from SLDC to Boyd. Then, on Aug. 14, Harmon directed Green to automatically approve any company that had already received MBE or WBE certification from another local, state or federal agency. In other words, if the state of Missouri or the federal Small Business Administration or Lambert-St. Louis International Airport recognized a company as minority-owned, so would the city.

The moves angered Green, who said that nobody in the mayor's office sought his advice. In Green's view, by agreeing to recognize certification by other agencies, the city was letting companies "shop around" for the least rigorous programs. "It was bad policy -- all it does is allow the front groups in other pools into the city program," he says.

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