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Controversial county administrator changes minority bidding rules

Sunday, February 08, 2009
Daily Herald
by Rob Olmstead

A Cook County administrator is under fire for ordering sweeping changes in a politically sensitive program without telling her boss, county board President Todd Stroger or any board commissioners.

The timing of the revelation couldn't be worse for Contract Compliance Administrator Betty Hancock Perry, who already is in a battle for her job with county Commissioner Elizabeth Gorman, an Orland Park Republican. Gorman, whose district includes parts of Des Plaines and Arlington Heights, has proposed abolishing Perry's department and turning its function over to the purchasing agent.

While Stroger and commissioners loyal to him say they still support Perry, they add she should have come to them first before making the changes - a public critique rare from regular board Democrats against one of their own.

The changes Perry made are obscure to the average citizen, but they are a lightning rod on the board because they concern two hot-button issues: race and a program that has attracted the attention of federal investigators in the past.

Perry's department is in charge of verifying that minority companies seeking business with the county are, in fact, minority owned and not just white-owned fronts. In 2005, the FBI arrested several contractors with the city of Chicago for posing as minority firms so they could get a bidding advantage. Around the same time, a county minority contractor was indicted on a charge of defrauding the county's program. It was revealed that he had paid a $20,000 "gratuity" to a subordinate of Perry's, in exchange for getting a piece of a multimillion county contract.

At the time of the Chicago scandal in 2005, minority firms could be certified with the county simply by getting certified with Chicago. Given the city's shoddy record at discovering fraudulent minority firms, some commissioners asked Perry to stop taking city certification and instead do the certification herself.

Impossible, Perry said.

With just six investigators and 900 firms to vet, there was no way she could drop city certification, she told commissioners.

But quietly, seven months ago, Perry did just that, without asking or telling Stroger or any commissioners.

So what changed? What enables her to now take on that extra work?

"We're doing less certification," Perry told a reporter who asked about it two weeks ago, before begging off the interview until a spokesman could be present per county policy.

When the interview resumed the following week, with county spokesman James Ramos now in tow, Hancock Perry qualified that they weren't doing less certification; it just may be taking longer. But, she added, all the work is still getting done, despite no significant increase in staff.

When asked how that was possible, given her previous statements, she answered: "We work very hard. My staff works extremely hard," she said.

Hancock Perry said she ordered the change because the city, in the wake of its scandal, changed its certification procedures. Now it has a private firm certify companies, but each company pays that firm a fee for the certification. The exchange of money, she said, has tainted the process to where she can no longer trust it, Perry contends.

Be that as it may, Gorman still wants her head. On Wednesday, commissioners are meeting in committee to consider Gorman's proposal to gut Perry's department. Although the proposal is phrased as a budget-cutting measure, it would effectively fire Perry, and stems in part from Perry's efforts a few months ago to disqualify a low bidder from Gorman's district. Gorman believed the firm had complied with minority subcontracting rules. Hancock Perry tried to disqualify the company, but the county board overrode her recommendation.

Gorman is not the only one with criticisms of the way Perry administers the program. Criticism has ranged from outright accusations of bid manipulation, to simple charges that bidding standards shift so quickly, and are so arbitrary, that no one, including the minority companies intended to benefit, can figure out how to submit a compliant bid.

"The only thing consistent about that department (are) the inconsistencies which cost millions of dollars," said Gorman.

The entire program "is a joke; it's not helping any of the minority businesses that deserve help," said county Commissioner Forrest Claypool, a Chicago Democrat.

He cited the fact that minority construction participation has dropped from double-digit percentages to less than 5 percent since a county ordinance requiring minority participation was ruled unconstitutional. The city's ordinance was stricken too, but it was quickly redrafted to make it constitutional, Claypool said. The county has been paying a consultant to redraft its version for four years with no apparent success, he said.

Hancock Perry notes she regularly updates commissioners on the successes of her department, and said dislike of the program is behind dislike of her. "Those who are skeptical about the program are going to be skeptical of everything that we do," she said.

And to be sure, Hancock Perry still has her supporters. Chicago Democratic Commissioners Deborah Sims and Jerry Butler said they back her efforts.

"It's been my opinion that she does a good job," said Butler.

Stroger said she still has his "full faith."

But they all agreed Perry should have broached the issue of the sweeping change before going ahead with it.

"She should have notified us that she was doing it," said Sims.

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