Minority Contractor Charges NC With Collusion And Racketeering Practices

Dani Ross, Columnist with The Carolinian

 

There is far too much to this story to put in one article, but we have to start somewhere.

“Women, minority, DBA and HUB firms are being discriminated against by North Carolina HUB, DOT and DPS,” said Dineen Etienne, a HUB certified minority contractor.

Dee, as she is called, has spent the time in between contracts, out in front of the general assembly in protest. Wielding a sign that reads, “Collusion, Anti Trust, Public Corruption, Abuse of Power,” she is a one-woman campaign against unjust business practices involving minority contractors.

Though Etienne is not the only contractor to experience discrimination, she is the most vocal. Many MWBE’s are afraid to go against the very system that is set up to go against them. 

North Carolina has construction projects that range in the billions of dollars each year. Many of these projects are federally funded. On paper, there are federal guidelines and minority contractor goals that must be met. In practice, well, that’s a different story.

One such project is the relief efforts from Hurricane Matthew. It has been almost two years since that storm devastated some of North Carolina’s poorest areas. State and federal funding for the relief efforts are around $1.5 billion and yet people are still living in hotels or mold infested houses.

By mandate, at least 1% of federally funded contracts should go to minority firms to do the work. That number alone is disgraceful, but when you have a system set up to keep minorities out, it is difficult to expect more.

Only recently have there been reports that the state is beginning to release some of the funds for relief efforts. But $20 million and 646 days later doesn’t seem like much of a good faith effort.

“There’s a lot of minority businesses out here that have a lot of barriers that are placed (before them)” Etienne stated. She was referring to the lack of funding for minority businesses. 

It seems strange that funding would be an obstacle with all of the money allocated for contracting. However, one of the ways that minority firms are kept out of the loop is the way the contact award system is set up.

If a contractor wins a bid on a project, then they must be able to fund parts of the project on their own and get reimbursed on the back end. Some of these projects require tens of thousands of dollars up front. Many banks still are not lending to minorities, even if they have an award letter in hand.

Etienne was awarded a contract with the NC Department of Public Safety, but she is convinced it was just a set up. 

Etienne and two other minority contracting firms were at the bid meeting for a “build” project. The three firms were all builders and the project was supposed to be a construction project. It ended up being a supply contract according to Etienne.

There was only one supplier in that bid meeting, and it was not one of the three minority firms.

“When you take a step back and look at things, it looks like it was a set up, because they had been doing business this company all this time,” said Etienne.

She ended up being awarded the contract and was told that she would have to pay for everything up front. 

Due to lack of funding opportunities, she had to resort to borrowing money from friends to float her until she could get a payment on her project.

Etienne firmly believes that if the Prime contractors knew the extent of minority contractor’s struggles that they wouldn’t allow it to happen. But maybe the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.

The contract award date was March of 2016. It was supposed to last for only three months. As of today’s date, Etienne is still in the contract.

Etienne encountered incredible difficulties getting the simplest tasks completed with the suppliers that were mandated by the state.

First, she put in an order for door frames on April 19, 2017. The frames were a stock item, not a custom order. She did not receive the door frames until July 20th. 

She also ordered stock doors in June. They did not arrive until October. 

In addition to the ridiculous delay, the doors came in damaged. The supplier had ordered the doors from Stephenson Millworks.

“Stephenson Millworks stated that they weren’t coming out to fix the doors, or do any business with me because I refused to buy hardware. They were trying to charge me $60,000 for hardware. Things from hinges and knobs to hotel locks. This is the problem that we have as minorities,” stated Etienne.

She expounded by saying that these issues are not just black issues, they are women in business, men in business that are DBE certified and HUB certified issues. According to her the discrimination goes “all across the board”.

“When I was standing out in front of the governor’s office and the legislative building I had Caucasian men walk up to me and say, ‘Thank you for standing out here because we’re not a part of the good ole boy system,’” Etienne recalled.

This article is just the tip of the iceberg. More of Etienne’s story will be printed in next week’s edition.