Slave to His Past

Race isn't why Norman Edwards can't get work.

Norman Edwards N.K. Edwards Construction
Albert Higley Company accused Edwards of participating in a kickback scheme on a Key Tower project. - Walter  Novak
Albert Higley Company accused Edwards of participating in a kickback scheme on a Key Tower project.
In October, the Black Contractors Employers Association picketed the Cleveland Clinic, claiming not one black-owned firm had been hired to build its new $450 million heart center.

A month later Norman Edwards, the group's founder, threatened to protest the $258 million makeover at the Cleveland Museum of Art because there weren't enough blacks on the job.

In both cases, he says, association members were given work.

The picket lines were back in January, this time at Cleveland State's $23 million Fenn Tower renovation. But CSU President Michael Schwartz wouldn't budge. He defended the school's record, noting that minority firms were hired at twice the rate the state requires for its three largest current projects.

Still, it was hard to fault Edwards. Cleveland's construction trade has long been riddled with problems of race and corruption. Contracts are often awarded not on merit, but on whom you know, how many checks you've cut to local politicians, and how much you're willing to kick under the table.

So last year Edwards founded the association to bust discrimination on city and county job sites. He believes suburban whites are getting more than their share -- with the help of white-run unions. "All men are supposed to be created equal, except for black people," he says. "That's the union slogan."

Yet Edwards makes a curious poster child for oppression. For one thing, N.K. Edwards Construction, his former company, used to make big money in Cleveland. In the 1990s, it received a $2 million contract at the Carr city-service building on Woodland, almost $700,000 at Key Tower, another $780,000 at the downtown library, and a handsome $3.9 million to renovate the Hopkins Airport terminal.

At the same time, however, Edwards was repeatedly accused of stiffing subcontractors, unions, and creditors. And court records suggest that when it came to paying his debts, his sense of fairness was selective at best.

In 1998, Third Federal Savings sued to foreclose on his 5,000-square-foot Solon home. To delay judgment, Edwards filed for bankruptcy, citing debts of more than $500,000 to 29 creditors, among them Diamond Men's Stores and Dowd Imports, from whom he'd leased a Mercedes for $1,400 a month.

Two years earlier, a bricklayers' local sued N.K. Edwards for shorting its pension funds by more than $11,000. Edwards ignored the suit, so the judge ruled for the union. Collecting, however, was an entirely different matter. Union attorney Mike Harvey says that Edwards had a gift for dodging a summons. "He was like quicksilver," says Harvey.

After receiving a tip, he finally found Edwards at his lawyer's office in Beachwood. Harvey delivered the summons and left, but before reaching his car, he turned to see Edwards charging from across the parking lot. "He hit me with his huge stomach," says Harvey. Edwards tore up the summons.

His contempt eventually forced Judge Paul Matia to send U.S. Marshals after him. But when Harvey took his deposition in a holding cell, Edwards "just rambled on about how he was persecuted," says the lawyer.

Edwards disputes everything but being handcuffed by the marshals. "On every job I've ever done, everybody got paid," he says. "Do your homework. You're assuming based on an asshole."

The bricklayers accepted a settlement of $5,000 -- but Edwards didn't pay it. John Eslich, who owns Eslich Wrecking, paid as a favor to his friend. But the friendship was about to get expensive.

In November 1996, Eslich gave N.K. Edwards a $780,000 subcontract to remove asbestos at the downtown library. But by the following spring, a subsequent lawsuit asserted, Edwards and another subcontractor began taking payroll funds earmarked for other subcontractors. From May to September 1997, Eslich's lawyers contend, Edwards banked at least $15,000.

When the job was almost finished, Eslich claims, he wrote a $64,000 check to Edwards, which was supposed to be divided among other subcontractors. Instead, Edwards simply kept the money, according to a subcontractor's lawsuit. Eslich was left holding the bag.

"Norm's subs sued me, because Norm never paid them," he claims. "I got stuck paying that twice because of him."

But when Edwards filed for bankruptcy, there was no point in suing him, says Eslich. "I have no interest in working with him again."

Neither does the Albert Higley Company. In 1993, Higley subcontracted with N.K. Edwards to build office space in Key Tower. A subsequent lawsuit alleged that Vincent Stephens, Higley's project manager, began approving invoices doctored by Edwards in exchange for kickbacks to a company owned by Stephens and his wife. Higley contended that the scheme extended to a contract to renovate the Carr Center.

Higley alleged that Stephens and Edwards "misappropriated" more than $1 million. During a deposition, Edwards repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment rights.

The case was eventually dismissed after Higley's attorneys, frustrated by nearly 18 months of delays, decided instead to recoup the money from an insurance policy covering employee fraud.

Edwards "categorically" denies the accusations and even denies knowing Stephens. But court documents indicate that the men knew each other well. They show that Edwards made four personal loans to Stephens totaling $11,500 and later sued him, accusing Stephens of directing him to write the alleged kickback checks.

"I'm not saying I'm a saint," says Edwards. "But I'm not a criminal or a drug dealer."

He again found trouble on his biggest prize, a $3.9 million city contract to renovate the Hopkins Airport terminal. Three subcontractors sued him, claiming that Edwards shorted them by more than $400,000. Harrington Electric eventually recovered $190,000 from Edwards' bonding company.

Despite his lengthy legal history, Edwards sticks to the story that racism, not his own reputation, is the reason his new company, Nolan Contracting, is being shut out of jobs. "The issues that you're bringing up are not going to stumble us and they're not going to bring us down," he says. "We've been badgered all the way through slavery, and now I'm going to be badgered because of something from the past?"

The morning after the interview, he calls Scene at least six times. His persecution complex remains. He says he's heard the paper's being paid $15,000 to do this story. He also has a warning:

"If you hurt my business or defame me in any way, there's going to be a hell of a lawsuit."

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