- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 4, 2005


Minority-owned businesses say they’re paying the price for the decision by Congress and the Bush administration to waive certain rules for Hurricane Katrina recovery contracts.

About 1.5 percent of the $1.6 billion awarded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has gone to minority businesses, less than a third of the 5 percent normally required.

Yesterday, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican, and Rep. Donald Manzullo, Illinois Republican, asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate whether small and minority-owned businesses have been given a fair opportunity to compete for Katrina contracts.

Andrew Jenkins doesn’t think so.

Once Katrina’s destructive waters receded, he began making calls in hopes of winning a government contract for his Mississippi construction company.

Mr. Jenkins, who is black, says he watched in frustration as the contracts went to others, many of them larger, white-owned companies with political ties to Washington.

“That just doesn’t smell right,” said Mr. Jenkins, president of AJA Management and Technical Services Inc. of Jackson, Miss.

To speed aid, many requirements normally attached to government contracting were waived by Congress and the administration. The result has been far more no-bid contracts going to businesses that have an existing relationship with the government.

There also was an easing of affirmative-action rules for contractors and a suspension of a “prevailing wage” law that black lawmakers and business people think will hurt the disproportionately large number of black hourly workers in the region.

“It sends a bad message,” said Harry Alford, president of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. “What they’re basically saying to the minority in New Orleans is, ‘We’ll make it harder for you to find a job. And if you do, we’ll make sure you get paid less.’”

The Department of Homeland Security, whose FEMA division handles most of the contracts, said it is committed to hiring smaller, disadvantaged firms. But many of the no-bid awards were given out to known players who could quickly provide help in an emergency situation, spokesman Larry Orluskie said.

“It was about saving lives, protecting property and going to who you go to, to get what you need,” he said.

The situation has exacerbated racial sensitivities that already were heightened by the slow initial federal response to the New Orleans flood.

President Bush has met privately with Bruce Gordon, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, to discuss the racial component of the disaster. And Mr. Alford said he will meet with Mr. Bush soon to talk about improving opportunities for minority contractors.

In the meantime, Willie Nelson of 33-year-old Nelson Plumbing Inc., continues to wait. He says white-owned firms scurry with work in Mississippi, while his Jackson business sits idle.

“The majority firms are all over the place,” Mr. Nelson said. “We just want an equal opportunity. But it’s been very difficult. They seem to be more interested in taking care of their own while we try to just get a foot in the door.”

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