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Minority contract set-aside program exploited
Navajo says he was figurehead
Ambrose Oliver was strapped for cash and in need of a break when his girlfriend offered a suggestion: Move from his home in Arizona to Maryland, go into business with her uncle and his associates, and make a fortune going after minority set-aside contracts.
The Navajo tribe member, a disabled veteran who was 40 at the time, liked the idea of being on the ground floor of a new business, so he agreed to be the president of Navajo Contractors and began signing his name to corporate documents.
Three years later, Mr. Oliver is back on the Navajo reservation, still stinging from the disappointment of plans gone awry. He said the men with whom he went into business used his name, his status as an American Indian, even his signature to pursue work from which he never profited and in some instances of which he had no knowledge.
The firm that handled the regulatory paperwork was called Capitol Structures Management Inc. (CSMI) — and its operating officers are principals in a relatively unknown firm called Veterans Services Corp. (VSC) that last year became a 51 percent partner in the $38 million D.C. Lottery contract.
That contract, and VSC’s role in obtaining it, are now the subject of an investigation by the District of Columbia’s office of inspector general into whether the minority-owned company misrepresented its business status.
Based in Falls Church, Va., CSMI’s president, Russell Wodiska, until recently was executive vice president of VSC. VSC’s president, Emmanuel S. Bailey, is an executive vice president of CSMI and a close associate of Mr. Wodiska, who also serves as an appointed planning commissioner in Falls Church.
CSMI’s website says its mission is to “empower small business minority contractors by offering superior business resources that enable them to perform at the highest level.”
But Mr. Oliver said CSMI’s principals relegated him to a $7-an-hour job at a liquor store owned by his girlfriend’s uncle, a man named Vic Guido, when he began asking too many questions about the operation. By the time his ordeal was over, he said, he was getting by on Spam and Ramen noodles while raising an 11-year-old child on his own.
When Mr. Oliver went to the authorities, he said, they were not interested in his plight.
He said the events he witnessed, and to some degree participated, left him with a bad taste for the world of so-called “minority contracting.”
“I began to realize they were exploiting me,” Mr. Oliver said, explaining his decision to return to the Navajo reservation, where he is trying to rebuild his life. “I didn’t go out there to be a liquor-store cashier. I had a job already. I had gone out there to do what they had told me, which was to learn about that business.”
In early 2007, Mr. Oliver traveled to Falls Church to meet with Mr. Wodiska and Mr. Guido. Back in Arizona, he received an e-mail from Mr. Wodiska that stated: “I am going to initially give you lots of documents to look at and complete. Other than your personal info., I will take care of the rest. … We need you to begin to think about your Personal and Economic Disadvantage Statement. This statement must CLEARLY show how your status as a Native American has DIRECTLY held you back.”
Mr. Wodiska sent Mr. Oliver numerous forms to complete and sign, including a statement of personal history for the Small Business Administration, which confers preferred status on disadvantaged firms under Section 8(a) of the SBA Act.
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