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Lawmaker seeks "groundswell of support" in descrimination suit

Lawmaker seeks "groundswell of support" in descrimination suit


Lawmaker seeks ‘groundswell of support’ in discrimination suit

November 13, 2009
By M. Scott Carter


OKLAHOMA CITY – While the fallout from a nationwide flurry of civil rights complaints was expected to reach every state in the union this fall – in Oklahoma the storm arrived in February.

Earlier this year, Harry Alford, executive director the National Black Chamber of Commerce, announced he would file a series of contracting complaints against state agencies that receive federal money. Alford said his goal was to get more federal contracts directed toward minority-owned companies by increasing pressure on states to comply with civil rights rules.

Alford he said he would file the complaints in each state.

“I’m going to raise hell,” he said. “You can get your funds frozen. That’s what needs to happen. We’re going to make some examples.”

In Oklahoma, Alford had help.

Here, state Sens. Connie Johnson, D-Oklahoma City, and Judy Eason McIntyre, D-Tulsa, joined with members of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus to file a federal discrimination lawsuit against the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.

That suit, records show, was filed in February.

“ODOT’s contracting process has long been dominated by a business-as-usual attitude, which makes it difficult for minority businesses to successfully participate,” Johnson said in a media release announcing the suit. “It’s time for us to establish accountability for what has been a continuing pattern of failure on the part of ODOT to utilize minority contractors.”

Johnson said her suit was filed just as the state received its share of federal transportation stimulus funds.

“Since then, not much has happened,” she said. “The governor appointed Gary Ridley as secretary of transportation in response to the suit. Then they proceeded to divvy up the pie.”

Johnson said she and other lawmakers met with ODOT officials who admitted they had violated federal law.

“We had meetings with ODOT and they admitted it was true,” she said. “They said they tried to mitigate, and they knew they had filed, and that they were open to suggestions.”

On Thursday, Alford said he supported Johnson’s suit.

“Oklahoma is just as egregious as California,” Alford said. “But California is bigger. Right now I’m focusing on California and Illinois and Connie’s focused on Oklahoma. I want to see how this plays out.”

In a posting on the NBCC’s Web site, Alford said 41 years had passed since the implementation of Section 3 of the Housing and Urban Development Act.

“For the next 15 months, the National Black Chamber of Commerce plans to ensure that this job and business creator is enforced,” the posting said. “We are going to do all of the heavy lifting to make it happen. When it’s enforced, there will be an additional 100,000 jobs within the African-American community annually. There should be an additional $2 billion in business contracts for our firms.”

So far, Alford has proven good to his word, filing complaints against agencies in Florida, California, New York, Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois.

He said the law states that for new jobs created through HUD funding, 30 percent should go to people who live in public housing or under the poverty level.

“It’s a beautifully written piece of legislation,” he said. “The only problem is HUD has never enforced it. Someone has to make them, so it might as well be us.”

In a letter to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donavon, Alford said the National Black Chamber of Commerce has resolved to bring recipients of HUD funding into compliance with Section 3 of the HUD Act.

“Of course, this is a very aggressive goal since the Department of Housing and Urban Development does not enforce Section 3 as it should,” he wrote. “Nearly 90 percent of all recipients don’t even bother to submit their required annual Section 3 reports. They do this without fear of any reprisal from your department. This is a sad commentary for those who live under the poverty level and are seeking employment opportunities.”

Alford said his organization estimated that 100,000 potential job opportunities are missed annually by African-Americans.

In Oklahoma, Johnson said she had requested that all federal funding targeted for public-sector projects in Oklahoma be withheld until either a disparity study is completed, or an independent body is appointed to oversee ODOT’s selection and contract awards processes.

“We’ve asked for information about who makes up the ODOT contract selection committee,” she said. “We have concerns about the way contracts are awarded. Because no matter whoever (is awarded contracts) comes out, African-Americans are not.”

Johnson said ODOT’s claims that minority businesses got 11.7 percent of more than $600 million in federal funds were not completely accurate.

“On paper their goal was 8 percent and they achieved 11.17 percent. Truly they did exceed their goal,” she said. “But those figures don’t tell the full story. Out of that 11.17 percent 10 percent were women, 1 percent was other ethnic groups and African-Americans got zero percent. When you’re talking about disparity, it was the African-Americans – they received zero percent.”

Both Alford and Johnson said they would continue to push the discrimination suit.

“We’re trying to get the ear of the president and build a groundswell of support,” she said. “And we have to keep pushing because the money will run out soon. That’s why we filed the suit in federal court, because we knew we wouldn’t stand a chance in Oklahoma.”

Charlie Price, a spokesman for Attorney General Drew Edmondson, said the AG’s office had received no discrimination complaints.

“Complaints of this nature should be directed to the Human Rights Commission,” he said.

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