Lone Ranger

Bob Dean spent 14 years exposing the systemic screwing of black workers. He's still waiting for someone to listen.

Bob Dean
All those hours, those months of digging amid the dirt and sweat and calloused resistance of working men -- all of it had come to this: Bob Dean was being ushered into the Red Room, the power center of Mayor Mike White's City Hall.

Dean was an outsider, a Houston import hired by the Port Authority in 1993 to monitor construction of the Rock Hall. He had spent the '70s investigating discrimination on Air Force bases from Iceland to Vietnam.

He had no idea Cleveland could be worse than a war zone.

Dean's job was to enforce rules requiring that white companies sub out a portion of all public construction contracts to women and minority-owned companies. The goal was to spread the wealth, ensuring that workers of all stripes share in the public bounty.

What he didn't know was the program had long been a sham. White contractors usually provided most of the workers, equipment, and money. Then they would give the black and female companies a cut of the profits -- say, 3 percent -- to do nothing but serve as a front and keep their mouths shut. When payday came, the front companies would sign off on the checks, creating the illusion that they were running the show. But that was rarely the case.

At the Rock Hall, the female-owned Ohio Diversified Services had a $1.9 million contract for erecting steel, yet all the crews were supervised by the male-owned American Bridge.

Hammond Corporation, owned by a black woman, subbed all its sewage equipment-installation work to a white company.

Hayes Construction, a company owned by Mayor White's brother-in-law, was getting 6 percent of a $645,000 drywall contract. But a white-owned company did all the work. Sherwin Hayes showed up only on payday, to flaunt his suit and deliver checks.

On this day in White's office, Dean laid out each scathing allegation on neatly typed overhead slides. As he worked his way through them, the room full of suits from the city and Turner Construction, which was overseeing the project, failed to register any surprise. Slowly, Dean realized they weren't even paying attention. They were looking at each other, arguing with their eyes over who should take the blame.

Finally, Dean arrived at the most damning slide. It wasn't just one or two companies running scams at the Rock Hall; at least 27 contracts were bad. Only 4 percent of $12.5 million worth of work set aside for minorities and women had actually been performed by them.

This was more than White could swallow. As the FBI would later allege, the mayor had been orchestrating similar scams all over the city, and now he wished to be nowhere near the scene of the crime. He turned to one of the Turner suits and made his position clear. "Hey, buddy -- I'm not wearing the jacket on this one," he said. And walked out.

In those early days, Dean still believed in the altruism of government. His previous boss, the mayor of Houston, operated a clean shop, and Dean came to Cleveland thinking that was the norm. But he soon discovered that in Northeast Ohio, scamming black workers was routine -- and silence was the official government position.

For 14 years, Dean donned sweats and baseball caps, and trekked from one muddy construction site to the next, snapping photos of equipment and recording the intimate confessions of truck drivers. He combed through piles of check registers and slept with a stack of documents under his bed. He earned the trust of concrete workers by cooking spaghetti dinners for them on Friday nights, loosening their tongues with sympathy and a welcome meal.

All the while, he was amassing meticulous proof of the city's worst-kept secret: The minority set-aside program was thoroughly corrupt.

Everyone knew it, but few were willing to do anything about it. Dean would expose the same front companies over and over again, yet they kept getting government work.

Meanwhile, he watched real black contractors -- the painters and electricians and bricklayers that the program was designed to help -- slowly bleed to death.

In 1980, Ohio passed a law setting aside a portion of all public construction contracts for minority-owned businesses. This was a long-awaited victory for desolate neighborhoods like Hough and Mt. Pleasant. It held the promise of young black men getting off the streets and onto a construction site.

For a while, it actually happened. White companies clamored to find black contractors to fill their quotas. But soon, the rule became just another layer of red tape to circumvent.

In Cleveland, the goal was for 30 percent of a contract to go to minority-owned firms and 10 percent to those owned by women. When the Port Authority started financing projects in the early '90s, it ran a kinder, gentler program. There were no quotas -- just a pointed lecture about how many blacks the previous contractor had hired, and a suggestion that you should do the same if you wanted the job.

Dean offered friendly advice and lists of the best black electricians and bricklayers in the city, urging contractors to make the calls. Then he'd show up on the site every day, chat up the men, and find out who was really working.

After the Rock Hall fiasco, he focused on another Turner project: the construction of a sleek, blue-glass headquarters on Euclid Avenue for Applied Industrial Technologies. Both the city and the Port helped finance the project, and it provided a vivid illustration of the scams Dean encountered on a daily basis.

Take MAP Construction, a minority firm that won a $623,000 contract for carpentry work. Many of its so-called workers were actually longtime employees of the white-owned GQ Contracting.

One carpenter explained to Dean that he'd worked 20 years for GQ. Yet on this job, he was instructed to say -- if anyone asked -- that he worked for MAP, "Whoever that is." (MAP owner Morris Pettus, who is no longer in business, could not be reached for comment.)

Harold Management, a female-owned subcontractor, presented a similar problem. Dean discovered that everyone listed on Harold's payrolls was also an employee of GQ. One worker didn't understand why his paychecks were now coming from a different company.

Dean asked the man how often he saw June Harold, owner of Harold Management. "Only when she brings the checks," he said.

They weren't particularly complex scams, but they didn't have to be. Everyone knew city officials wouldn't muddy their loafers on construction sites. They also knew that although City Hall was run by a black mayor, he'd shown no interest in protecting black workers. White's blessing of the scam reverberated through executive suites to the truck yards.

When Dean raised questions, the companies made feeble attempts to cover their tracks. Once, they simply spray-painted "MAP" over equipment labeled "GQ."

Others tried more subtle ways to get around the system.

For one $20,000 contract at the Applied site, Granger Trucking -- a supposedly minority-owned company -- was using trucks supplied by white-owned companies.

Granger President Charles Jackson wrote a letter to Turner, complaining that there weren't enough black companies to do the job.

What Jackson didn't mention was that he was merely lending his color to a man named Frank Bianchi, president of C&K Trucking. Granger supposedly shares office space with C&K, though "Jackson has an office as big as this table," Dean says. (Jackson did not respond to repeated interview requests.)

But that was how the game was played. As long as the quota numbers looked good on paper, no one asked questions.

Black workers, meanwhile, were left jobless and bewildered, abandoned by the very system designed to help them.

Inside the Port Authority, Dean's crusade met little resistance. His superiors believed his reports, and over the years, the Port developed a reputation for making sure legitimate contractors got work.

"I've never found his reports to be anything less than credible . . . If Bob told me the sun comes up in the west, I'd look west," says his longtime boss, recently retired Port President Gary Failor.

But on major projects like Browns Stadium and the Rock Hall, the Port wasn't calling the shots -- the city was. The Port's only power was over general contractors such as Turner. And Port officials never punished them.

"They had the authority to say, 'Turner, you're done. We don't want to see you on any more of our projects,'" Dean says. But they never did.

In fact, the first time Dean presented his findings about the Rock Hall to Turner officials, he was greeted with a death threat.

He was downtown in Turner's offices high in the Galleria and had just finished his slide presentation about the Rock Hall's illegal front companies. Suddenly, there was a blackout. Everyone started evacuating the building. Dean waited until the stairwell cleared out, then decided to stop at the men's room.

He was at the urinal when the door opened. A crack of daylight seeped into the darkened room. Then came a man's voice, cold and sure.

"You been to Vietnam," the man said. "I guess you don't care about your life."

And just like that, the room went dark again.

Another time, Turner officials accused Dean of sexual harassment after he exposed an illicit arrangement between the female-owned Burkshire Construction and Baker Concrete, a white-owned company.

To fill their minority quota at the Rock Hall, Baker officials needed a female-owned subcontractor. So they fabricated a document to make it look like Anne Burkey, Burkshire's owner, had supplied their concrete pump.

A Baker employee shared the incriminating paperwork with Dean. But when Dean reported it to Turner, the company twisted his story to make it sound as if he was accusing Burkey of sleeping with a Baker employee. This accusation apparently counted as sexual harassment.

"They started to treat me and anybody around them as if we were idiots," Dean says.

(Neither Burkey, Turner's current Cleveland-office vice president Joseph Lazarro, nor former VP Alfonso Sanchez, now head of the school district's bond accountability commission, responded to repeated interview requests.)

Luckily, Dean's supporters at the Port made the harassment problem go away. Vindication came later, when Burkey admitted that Baker was running the show and city monitors gave her credit for doing only $73,700 worth of work on a $361,000 contract.

But that wasn't the end of Dean's struggles with Turner. Occasionally, Turner would knock a few thousand dollars off a minority company's quota credits based on his investigations, but Turner almost never kicked contractors off a job.

Even after the city's Office of Equal Opportunity confirmed Dean's findings, the punishment handed to Turner was hardly painful. The company simply had to buy a computer system for the office and agree to sponsor a $25,000 scholarship program with the Urban League.

Meanwhile, many of the same front companies -- Ohio Diversified, Burkshire, Granger -- were free to work on the city's next big project: Browns Stadium.

"There was no real penalty for getting caught," Dean says.

But there was a penalty for speaking up.

Soon after Dean made his presentation about the Rock Hall, Nate Gray invited him to lunch. It was like receiving a calling card from the devil.

According to the FBI, Gray was the bagman for a massive extortion ring White was running from City Hall ["City for Sale," July 20, 2005]. Everything from school technology to airport contracts was up for sale. If you wanted in, you had to go through Gray or Ricardo Teamor, White's friend, who also sat on the Port Authority board.

Until the lunch invitation, Dean had no idea who Gray was. He wouldn't let anyone buy him a cup of coffee, much less take a bribe from them. But that afternoon at Dick's Last Resort in the Flats, he got a glimpse of how the other half lived.

"What would it take to make this right?" Gray asked over beers.

Dean, ever the earnest public servant, suggested that Gray meet with the contractors and figure out what real work they actually did. Then, once the numbers were adjusted, Dean wouldn't have to embarrass them.

Gray was silent. This clearly wasn't the kind of solution he had in mind. Without saying a word, he put his beer back on the bar and walked out.

Inside City Hall, Gray's reach extended even further. According to Dean, Gray was dating Linda Willis, head of the Office of Equal Opportunity. At one time he was sending her a dozen roses a day. And though she talked about cleaning up the minority program, her actions spoke louder than her words.

When Dean showed her his findings about Charles Jackson and Granger, she explained that Jackson was a golf buddy of the mayor.

When Dean was going to present the Rock Hall scams to Turner and invited Willis, she offered a similar response: "Brother, I cannot go with you." (Willis could not be reached for comment.)

Meanwhile, her office was constantly short-staffed and not eager to investigate front companies. Dean led the training sessions for city employees and saw the fear in their eyes as he spoke of visiting construction sites, sorting through dump tickets, holding clandestine meetings with concrete drivers. All these tasks required extra dedication. And though city bureaucrats were charged with protecting black workers, they had little interest in making it happen.

On the contrary: Willis often fought Dean's findings. At the Applied Technologies building, Dean discovered that Choice Construction, a minority company owned by Gail Perkins, did none of the demolition and trucking work detailed in its $447,000 contract. Instead, it leased equipment and hired workers from white-owned Superior Demolition & Excavating.

But Perkins and her husband, Fred, were close friends of the mayor. By 1995, their city contracts totaled $38 million -- more than any other company in the minority program. Unsurprisingly, Willis refused to punish them. Choice went on to win big contracts at Hopkins Airport, NASA Glenn, and Browns Stadium.

Yet despite being the pliant foot soldier, even Willis wasn't immune to White's notoriously volatile temper. She eventually stopped getting flowers from Gray. And when Dean's exposé of the Rock Hall, Applied Technologies, and other projects made the news, Willis publicly acknowledged that front companies were a problem she was trying to fix.

These were not the kinds of things you acknowledged in Mike White's City's Hall. A month later, she was forced to resign.

Dean grew accustomed to being the lone Boy Scout in a sea of political hoodlums. He drove carefully to avoid speeding tickets and wouldn't even go out for a drink anymore, fearing his powerful foes would turn a DUI into a jail sentence.

Yet his hardship was nothing compared to the hurdles faced by the black contractors he was hired to help.

A quarter-century ago, when the minority set-aside programs began, Cleveland was swarming with talented black tradesmen. "People used to seek you out in those days," remembers one electrician.

But after White's dozen-year reign, when everything from stadium building to road salting went to front companies, few legitimate minority contractors managed to survive. Those who did are now so afraid of losing work, they won't let their names appear in print.

"It's harder to grow when somebody's beating you up," the electrician explains.

The problems begin at bidding, where front companies have a supreme advantage. Since they don't have the costs of actually doing work -- paying insurance, bonding, and workers' comp -- they can just take their cut -- say, $3,000 on a $100,000 project -- and pocket it. So when they team up with white companies, they lower their bids to reflect this artificial marketplace. Real companies can't match the price.

"Your legitimate companies are having problems, because these front companies who have skirted the system, they already know what their payoff is, and that has become the status quo," explains another prominent black contractor.

Nor does a prime contractor have much incentive to hire a real minority company. The fake companies are low-risk, cheap, and politically expedient. Even if you want a legit company, you do it at your own risk. Contractors tell stories of white companies being told they would no longer get city business if they hired the wrong black firm.

"There's a lot of general contractors that got hurt trying to do it the right way," the electrician says.

In the rare instances when legitimate minority subcontractors are hired, they still have problems getting paid. Some prime contractors have a tendency to scam people they know can't fight back.

Look, man, doesn't look like I can pay you for 30 to 45 days. But if you could kick me 10 percent, I'll have it for you tomorrow.

It's an age-old trick used on subcontractors of all stripes, but made more difficult here because of the hurdles black businessmen already have to overcome.

"Who you gonna tell?" one contractor asks. You need the money. So you swallow your pride and move on.

Over the years, these small cuts add up to broken businesses. The electrician opened shop in 1978 and worked on many well-known projects throughout the county. But three years ago, he finally got so behind on his taxes that he was forced to close.

Today, he's reluctant to blame front companies or anyone else for his fate. Yet he can't help but notice that the odds were tipped against him. "It affects the way you do business -- it's not healthy."

The changing of the guard at City Hall never brought relief for black contractors.

After a city-hired attorney produced a report illuminating rampant front-company scams at Hopkins Airport, Mayor Frank Jackson refused to release it for a year. And he has yet to punish any of the black companies involved.

Maureen Harper, spokeswoman for Jackson, insists the mayor has cracked down on fronts. She says city officials now monitor minority companies, respond to complaints, and even make job-site visits.

"This administration's really been focusing on beefing up compliance," Harper says. "If there was a company in the past who may have had issues, if they currently had work with the city, we would be looking at them."

But if there's been a crackdown, it's happened in typical City Hall fashion -- heavy on appearances, light on results. Many of the firms Dean found to be frauds remain on the city's list of approved minority companies. And they've had no trouble getting work everywhere from John Hay High School to the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Dean kept exposing them until last year, when one of his bosses finally told him to back off.

He'd been monitoring construction of Avery Dennison's new headquarters in Mentor, which the Port helped finance, when he discovered minority firms were up to their old tricks.

Jacqueline Hammond, for example, was occupying a small office in the prime contractor's complex. When Dean showed up unannounced one day, she admitted that she wasn't doing anything for her $2 million heating-and-air-conditioning contract. (Hammond did not respond to repeated interview requests.)

Another minority businessman, Jose Rivera of North Electric, didn't even know what his subcontract was supposed to be worth. At one meeting, reps from the project engineer, Duke Construction, said it was worth $397,000, but Rivera said $680,000. Dean eventually concluded that Rivera was never onsite, "didn't do anything," and was just fronting for the main electric contractor, Doan Pyramid.

Doan Pyramid President Michael Forlani vehemently denies the allegations, saying he has the payroll records to prove that Rivera had his own laborers onsite. "I assure you that he was out there," Forlani says. "Mr. Dean must have another agenda."

But it's hard to verify their claims. Rivera and Duke officials did not return repeated calls for comment.

Dean conveyed his concerns to his higher-ups at the Port, but this time they weren't eager to listen. Former Port President Failor says Avery Dennison was not "committed" to hiring minority companies, which made it hard to get the contractors in line.

Avery Dennison denies this. In a written statement, spokeswoman Heather Marks notes that the company even extended deadlines to make it easier for minority companies to bid. She insists they had success.

"On the portions of the project where [minority/female] companies were capable of doing the work . . . participation was just over 10 percent," she writes.

What Marks does not note, of course, is that such numbers are about 20 percent below the Port's usual goals.

But Linda Highsmith-Poole, the Port's vice president for development finance, knew that her job depended on getting those numbers right. Dean, however, refused to inflate them.

"I'm not gonna do it both ways," he told her. (Highsmith-Poole did not respond to interview requests.)

So she took minority oversight out of his job description. In November, the Port hired Linda Sternheimer to oversee the program. According to Dean, she values calculators more than visits to construction sites. "Their program now is in Excel," he says.

Meanwhile, black contractors are reaching their boiling point. They can no longer sit silently as hundreds of millions of dollars in dirt is dug around them -- from the Cleveland Clinic to the schools to the Euclid Corridor -- with so few brown faces on deck.

Gary Vance, a union man who's been laying brick for the past three decades, says things are getting worse. He knows about 20 to 30 black bricklayers who are out of work. "I am really fed up with this. Black people need to eat too."

Dean knows this, perhaps better than anyone, but there's little he can do. By the time he retired on April 1, he was facing a construction world that looked eerily similar to the one he encountered 14 years ago. Not only have the same front companies continued to get work ["Black on Black Crime," February 21], their supporters are now in positions of power.

Hammond Corporation, which Dean found to be a front at both the Rock Hall and Avery Dennison, has gotten several contracts through the $1.5 billion school construction project. Alfonso Sanchez, who was vice president of Turner when Dean was battling the company in the early '90s, is head of the Bond Accountability Commission, a citizens' board overseeing the school project. And Barry Withers, the White aide who oversaw his Office of Equal Opportunity, is now a special assistant to Mayor Jackson.

A more cynical man than Dean would have walked away long ago. After 14 years, it's amazing how little has changed.

"I seriously thought that at some point, some power bigger than me would say, 'Enough is enough,'" he says.

He's still waiting for that day to come.

Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.
Scroll to read more Cleveland News articles


Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.