An East St. Louis black contractors group has filed a $650 million lawsuit against the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) for racial discrimination and other violations.
They are calling for a halt on all contracts awarded by IDOT until the department can remedy its racial disparities.
The suit, filed by the non-profit Metro East Black Contractor’s Organization (MEBCO), comes three months after a disparity study of IDOT’s contracts from 2006 to 2009 showed that racial discrimination persists in the department’s contracting process.
The study – contracted by IDOT in 2009 – found that disadvantaged business enterprises (DBEs) represent 25.55 percent of the available construction firms. However, they only received 8.25 percent of the construction prime contracts under $500,000 from 2006 to 2009, according to the study conducted by Mason Tillman Associates.
Despite IDOT’s awareness of the discrimination documented in the study, in November IDOT issued a bid lettings for 12 separate construction projects in the counties surrounding East St. Louis — and only one of them had a DBE goal higher than 20 percent, according to the filing.
In fact, two bids had DBE goals of zero percent. And six others had goals of less than 10 percent. Several of these bids are part of the $750 million joint project with Missouri to construct a new bridge across the Mississippi River.
The lawsuit states that IDOT continually sets low participation goals for minority- and women-owned businesses and has failed to enforce “Good Faith Efforts” to achieve its goals.
MEBCO is asking for $650 million – or 5 percent of IDOT’s $13 million Highway Improvement Plan – to be placed in a five-year, court-administered trust to remedy discrimination against black and minorities on IDOT projects.
The group is also asking for an injunction to halt all contracts awarded by IDOT, including the November 2011 IDOT bid letting, until discrimination is eradicated.
IDOT’s Acting Secretary Ann Schneider has not been served the lawsuit yet. Spokesperson Josh Kauffman said the department was doing various things to increase minority participation. He pointed to a Sept. 30 letter from IDOT to East St. Louis Mayor Alvin Parks Jr. that outlined initiatives, including mentorships and incentives for hiring training program graduates.
However, Kauffman did not comment on the case’s specific claims.
The court filing also states that the department is irresponsibly administrating a $2 million fund for a construction training program for minorities in District 8 – which includes counties in and around East St. Louis.
Under a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Department of Justice, IDOT committed to providing a minimum of $400,000 per year over the next five years to fund the training program, the filing states.
Earlier this year, MEBCO obtained IDOT invoices through the Freedom of Information Act that showed $66,000 in payments to a firm that was not registered or licensed to do business in Illinois. The invoices to this firm also did not have an address or working phone number.
MEBCO also found that $100,000 in unaccounted-for payments were made to Southwestern Illinois College from the construction fund.
MEBCO is asking the court to order an immediate financial accounting by IDOT of the $2 million construction training fund.
Dr. William Mason, president of MEBCO, said his main goal in the lawsuit is to help his community find jobs.
“Hopefully all this will result in a lower crime rate and giving these young people an opportunity,” Mason said. “We have to try to provide a way for them to make a decent living, these graduates that we’ve trained.”
Though IDOT provided some documents, MEBCO alleges that IDOT has violated the Freedom of Information Act by not producing other documents requested.
The disparity study indicated that African Americans and Hispanic Americans have significantly lower earnings in the construction industry in Illinois.
“The facts document the presence of racial and gender discrimination in the private sector,” the study states. “Such discrimination creates economic conditions in the private sector that disadvantage M/WBEs, which are manifested in lower M/WBE formation rates and depressed M/WBE growth and financial stability.”
IDOT agreed to conduct the study in a memorandum of understanding with MEBCO in 2005, after the group and others threatened to shut down the I-64 construction.
“We are seeking real transformational change,” said Eric E. Vickers, attorney for MEBCO. “We are seeking institutional change, and we think by proceeding through the court system, we will be able to achieve this.”