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As a younger man, Harris battled for minority businesses. He uses the term "militant" to describe his stance. "I raised a lot of hell," he says.
In 1971, Harris interrupted a meeting in which contractors submitted bids to build Penn Valley Community College. Harris, the construction manager of a group called Mo-Kan Contractors, wanted to make sure that minorities received a fair share. According to a newspaper account, he sat on a desk and said, "There'll be no bidding openings tonight."
Police put Harris in handcuffs and dragged him out of the room. He and two others were charged with disturbing the peace. "I became a young man with a record for speaking up for people's right to participate," Harris says.
Harris eventually became Mo-Kan's regional director. At its zenith, the organization reached into Nebraska, Iowa and Arkansas. The group used all manner of tactics. "I tore up buildings all across the country," Harris says. "Physically tore them up."
Mo-Kan, which received city funding, came undone in the mid-1980s. There was IRS trouble. Newspaper stories linked Mo-Kan to failed savings and loans. Contractors complained that they were required to pay $2,000 to get on Mo-Kan's "gold list." Harris blames "a whole lotta politicism" for the group's downfall.
After Mo-Kan, Harris worked for the International Union of Operating Engineers. Then, in 1990, he went to work for J.E. Dunn as a consultant on minority affairs.
Harris credits Bill Dunn for correcting his "tunnel vision" — for helping him see the city as something more than pieces of turf to fight over. Harris worked for J.E. Dunn for 10 years. "The Dunns are like a family to me," Harris says.
Dunn representatives say the company's record on diversity is a long history of outstanding performance. Bill Dunn and other company officials have received dozens of awards over the years. In 1996, the Kansas City Hispanic Association Contractors Enterprise even recognized J.E. Dunn with its Amigo Award.
Of course, Dunn officials have direct and indirect control over some of the organizations that give the company plaques. The MidAmerica Minority Business Development Council, for instance, once named Bill Dunn its CEO of the year. Steve Dunn and William Dunn Jr. have served on the development council as officers and directors, according to the registration reports available from the Missouri secretary of state.
J.E. Dunn's sway also comes from its ubiquity on the construction scene.
The Pitch tried to reach several contractors alleged to have been used as fronts on the H&R Block Building. They ignored calls or turned down interview requests.
Even general discussions about pass-throughs seem to be off-limits. Carlos Gomez, the president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and Leonard Graham, who heads the Kansas City Society of Black Architects and Engineers, did not respond to interview requests.
The apparent reluctance to speak may have something to do with the power wielded by a contractor with $2.7 billion in revenues. As Harris puts it: "The J.E. Dunn Company is the star of the show in Kansas City."
Armando Diaz says minority contractors expressed support when he first challenged Dunn. But once the lawsuit got filed, he says, "People would call and say, 'Why are you doing it?'"
Minority contractors, Diaz says, have little to gain by standing for purity when it comes to compliance. "They're afraid," he says, "afraid of losing work."
Silence, of course, allows general contractors to be lazy about meeting minority-participation goals. If they played by the actual rules, minority businesses would be banking $3 million contracts instead of $60,000 crumbs.