Certifiably Mad

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

The Hispanic Chamber interprets actions such as Kugler's as a violation of Harmon's order to recognize MBE/WBE certifications by other agencies. "That is why [Green] has to go," says Cuevas.

Green sees it differently. He says 120 of the 440 companies the city has certified were certified under Harmon's order. But such certification isn't automatic, he adds: "There are still things they have to do."

"The application has to be absolutely complete," Kugler explains. It is a complex application -- intrusive, some say. It requires that the applicant hand over any business agreements and the company's income statement and balance sheet, in addition to answering 29 questions. "You need information to make sound and fair decisions," Green says. Even with that information, a lot of companies will fail because they forgot to get it notarized, says Kugler.

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.

Green brags that he runs "the most stringent" MBE/WBE program in the area, one designed to ensure "bona fide groups" benefit. The strict guidelines were developed after the black contractors' lawsuit was settled in 1990. Before the inception of the new rules, it was routine practice for large white-owned firms to create or subsidize smaller companies in order to win contracts with set-aside provisions. General contractor Kozeny-Wagner Inc., for example, met its city minority-contracting goals by subcontracting to a minority-owned company that got office space, telephone lines, administrative staff and all of its work from Kozeny-Wagner. Roadbuilder Fred Weber Inc. met minority-contracting goals by subcontracting to a company formed by the wives of key Fred Weber executives and run by former Fred Weber managers. And they were not alone.

In St. Louis, the bona fide minority contractors -- the companies actually owned and controlled by blacks -- were the ones that demanded that the city adopt stricter standards. Ironically, some members of the Minority Contractors Association -- the organization that fought for stricter standards -- have since run afoul of Green's enforcement of the strict standards their lawsuit brought about.

On April 16, 1999, the SLDC certification board of directors denied recertification to Interface Materials Inc. The ready-mix concrete company's principal owner is Sam Hutchison, a longtime MCA member. Hutchison's firm was denounced as a "minority front" during the 1999 protests over state highway funding that shut down Interstate 70, and an investigation by Green's staff found that Interface Materials owed money to white-owned companies and paid a white partner in the firm, but not Hutchison, a salary.

Interface Materials appealed the initial determination by the certification staff to a review board, then to an appeal board, then to the SLDC board of directors. Unsuccessful, Hutchison was forced to take his case to St. Louis Circuit Court, where he eventually prevailed [D.J. Wilson, "Minority Once More," RFT, Oct. 13, 1999].

Walle Amusa, a former city certification specialist who now works as a management consultant, says dissatisfaction with the city's certification process is widespread in the minority contracting community. Even when everything is in order, "it can take up to a year to get certified," he says. "That kind of delay is unacceptable -- it amounts to restraint of trade." Amusa says that at the very minimum, the staff should be increased to ensure that the city can "deliver quality service in a timely matter."

Hutchison wasn't the first black businessman who had to go to court to get his certification restored. In 1998, Circuit Judge John Garvey blocked SLDC from yanking the certification of a small black-owned painting firm [Melinda Roth, "White Out," RFT, July 14, 1999]. Green's staff concluded that a white part-time office manager was actually calling the shots at CCR Inc. But Garvey said SLDC had no actual proof and was acting on "mere suspicion."

Despite those reversals, Green remains unrepentant. "What do those judges have in common with the people the programs are trying to serve?" he asks rhetorically. "To me, it is all politics," he adds, part of a nationwide judicial assault on affirmative action.

Harmon seemed to ignore the courts, too. He didn't take any action until the Hispanic Chamber showed up. Now his successor, Francis Slay, inherits the controversy.

The new mayor, who took office last week, is facing at least two conflicting demands -- throw out Harmon's directives loosening up the certification program or throw out Green.

The Hispanic Chamber plans to press Slay to ax Green -- and move to liberalize the standards that have kept some of its members from winning certification. Pointing to the growth in the city's Asian and Hispanic populations, each of which nearly doubled in size in the 1990s to approximately 7,000, Pinela says, "A lot of businesses would move into the city and contribute to the tax base but don't, because they don't get any support.

"Better certification would symbolize that the city wants to do business with minorities, that they are opening the doors," says Pinela. "If you're turning away emerging contractors and immigrants, you won't have any businesses starting in the city," adds Angel.

But Green says Slay would be sending exactly the wrong message if he preserves the changes made by his predecessor that weaken the city certification program. Slay, says Green, should vacate Harmon's order.

"What good is a program where we say yes to everyone?" he says.

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