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Minority firm led by a dead woman;
County reviews company's qualifications for program

Saturday, March 26, 2005
Chicago Tribune
by Mickey Ciokajlo ,Dan Mihalopoulos

The woman Cook County officials believed was in charge of the day-to-day operations of a politically connected minority firm has been dead for more than a year, prompting a county review of whether the company qualifies as a minority firm.

Her death has raised questions with the county as to whether day-to-day management is in the hands of a minority.

The revelation raises a new question about a company owned by Jabir Herbert Muhammad, who the City of Chicago claimed last week used a separate firm as a minority front for businessman Antoin "Tony" Rezko, a key adviser to Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Deloris Wade, an African-American woman who was chief operating officer of Crucial Communications LLC, died Jan. 23, 2004. Under the terms of minority business certification, companies are required to be owned and operated by a minority. They are also required to notify the county of any major changes in the operation of the company.

Yet nearly eight months later, when the company submitted its affidavit for minority recertification on Sept. 14, 2004, the firm indicated nothing had changed in the "control/management" of the company.

Crucial Communications LLC is the minority subcontractor on the county's multimillion-dollar pay telephone deal with SBC Illinois.

Muhammad's other company, Crucial Inc., was accused by the city as fronting for Rezko in the operation of two Panda Express restaurants at O'Hare International Airport.

After the city's claims, county officials initially said they had no concerns about Crucial Communications. They changed their mind the next day and announced a review of the company's minority status after media reports that Muhammad, 75, has been seriously ill for the last three years.

On Friday, Cook County spokeswoman Caryn Stancik said officials had also learned "very recently" that the woman who was supposed to be in charge on a daily basis was no longer alive.

"It was the county's understanding that she was in charge of day-to-day operations," said Stancik, adding the news of Wade's death helped prompt the recent review. "We were not officially notified of her death."

Roxanne B. Jackson, Muhammad's lawyer, said she was not certain Muhammad believed he had to notify the county of Wade's death.

"She was the day-to-day administrator working under Mr. Muhammad," Jackson said. "When Ms. Wade passed, to my knowledge, Mr. Muhammad had several people assisting him in the day-to-day operation of the company."

Jackson said she began working with Muhammad on this issue only in the last couple of weeks. She said Muhammad, son of late Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, has asked her to work with him "on the day-to-day operations myself until a suitable replacement is found" for Wade.

Jackson said she believed the county's review would determine whether the company should remain a certified minority business enterprise.

The county has a "best efforts goal" of awarding at least 35 percent of professional service and consulting contracts to minority- and women-owned businesses.

Crucial Communications is the minority subcontractor working with SBC Illinois on a multiyear deal for the exclusive rights to operate inmate phones in Cook County Jail as well as pay phones in county facilities.

The County Board voted in 2003 to continue the arrangement with SBC under a three-year contract with the option of two one-year extensions.

Under the deal, the county would generally receive 40 to 45 percent of the gross revenue, depending on the phone and the type of call made. The county anticipated earning $6 million a year under the contract.

Crucial Communication's cut is about $1.7 million a year.

Crucial Communications is in charge of the operational side of the pay phones at the jail with a person on site at all times.

"At this point they remain a certified minority contractor. If that changes, we will react accordingly," SBC spokesman Jerry Lawrence said.

Documents released by Cook County on Friday show that although Muhammad is listed as Crucial Communications' 100 percent owner, the company has strong ties to Rezko.

Wade's resume shows she was special assistant to the president at Rezko Enterprises for nearly six years until she became chief operating officer of Crucial Communications in April 2003.

While working for Rezko, Wade submitted the application to certify Crucial Inc. as a minority company with the City of Chicago, enabling it to win O'Hare concessions worth more than $5 million annually. She would later be listed as Crucial Inc.'s contact to maintain its minority status with the city.

Crucial Inc. and Crucial Communications shared office space. The county's on-site investigation report completed May 19, 2003, said in response to the question of how financing was arranged to start the business: "$3,500. Assets from Crucial, Inc."

A payroll for Crucial Communications for the period ending July 9, 2004, shows Rezko's brother, Aboud, working for it.

Gene Murphy, a lawyer for Tony Rezko, said Friday that his client is not involved with Crucial Communications.

"Tony Rezko has nothing to do with Crucial Communications," Murphy said. "He and Muhammad have been friends and business associates for over 30 years. They are closer than family, even though Muhammad is very ill."

A wealthy businessman, Rezko is an adviser to Blagojevich. Rezko has the licensing rights to the Asian-food chain Panda Express in Illinois and four other states. Last week, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's administration charged that Rezko's firm, which is not a minority-certified company, was actually running two Panda Express restaurants at O'Hare that were supposed to be under the operation of Muhammad's Crucial Inc.

Representatives for Muhammad and Rezko have denied that Crucial Inc. was a front, and they intend to formally respond to the city's allegations.

In the past, Crucial Communications and Crucial Inc. both listed their addresses in the same building on West Huron Street as Rezko's business, which has since moved.

Also listed in that building is The Crucial Group LLC, a company owned by Orlando Jones.

Jones is the godson and former chief of staff for Cook County Board President John Stroger. When Jones left the county in 2001, he went to work for Rezko, concentrating in real estate development.

In an interview last week, Jones said he played no role in Crucial Communications obtaining the minority portion of the SBC contract.

Jones said that he is friends with Muhammad and Rezko but that he has severed his business ties with Rezko.


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