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Contracting scandals spark call for a watchdog

Tuesday, March 29, 2005
Chicago Tribune
by Mickey Ciokajlo

Citing recent contracting troubles, a Cook County commissioner said Monday that the county should outsource certification and oversight of its minority- and women-owned business program.

Commissioner Mike Quigley's proposal follows the recent disclosure that an African-American woman who county officials believed was in charge of daily operations at one subcontractor had been dead for more than a year.

Cook County regulations require firms in the program to be both owned and run by minorities or women.

At the same time, a federal grand jury is investigating a $49 million hospital equipment contract in which a U.S. magistrate judge said the minority participant provided no "commercially useful" function.

"The recent contracting scandals at Cook County demonstrate that our [minority and women's business enterprise] program is ineffective and is doing very little to expand local markets for legitimate minority- and women-owned businesses," Quigley said.

The county should seek bids on both the certification process and the oversight of the program, he said. There are not-for-profit agencies as well as for-profit companies that provide such services in other parts of the country, Quigley said.

A spokeswoman for County Board President John Stroger declined to comment on Quigley's proposal, saying the administration had not yet seen it.

The county in December contracted with Colette Holt, a lawyer who specializes in affirmative action programs, to help draw up guidelines for construction contracting that would withstand legal challenge.

Several commissioners have said the county needs to redraft its ordinance related to construction contracts, which was struck down in 2000 as unconstitutional, but Quigley said his proposal goes beyond that.

Along with outsourcing the program, the county should immediately audit the program, which includes about 1,000 minority- and women-owned businesses.

On Saturday, the Tribune reported that Deloris Wade, the chief operating officer of Crucial Communications LLC, died in January 2004. The firm is a subcontractor on a multimillion-dollar pay telephone deal.

Crucial Communications is owned by Jabir Herbert Muhammad whose separate business, Crucial Inc., has been accused by the city as acting as a minority front for businessman and political donor Antoin "Tony" Rezko.

County officials are reviewing Crucial Communications' status to determine whether it was run by minorities after Wade died. The county is also investigating why it was not notified of her death.

Muhammad, 75, has been seriously ill for the last three years, but his lawyer said other people have assisted him in running his companies.

The lawyer, Roxanne B. Jackson, predicted last week that the county would determine Crucial Communications had done nothing improper.

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