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Chairman Ron Yaffe and the other TIF commissioners asked the right questions. They seemed to grasp the most important element of the case: Dunn's complicity in the use of fronts or pass-throughs.
H&R Block, the official developer, bore ultimate responsibility. But Dunn is the real story. The company's blue signs surround most major projects in Kansas City. Dunn even employs a diversity director, Marvin Carolina Jr., to handle compliance issues.
A different project gave the TIF Commission reason to believe that the "brown washing" on the H&R Block job was not an isolated incident. A year ago, the city determined that a minority concrete supplier had acted as a pass-through at advertising-magnate Bob Bernstein's West Edge project near the Plaza.
The project's general contractor? J.E. Dunn. Or at least it was. The contractor's crews walked off the job last September after Dunn and the West Edge development team reached an impasse over cost overruns.
The TIF Commission elected not to hammer Bernstein. (I think they felt sorry for him; the project sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy in May.) As a rule, the city and its agencies do not pursue "liquidated damages" — compensation in cash — when a prime contractor fails to reach diversity targets.
H&R Block provided a test. Here was a high-profile project and an instance of obvious fraud. (It was embarrassing to watch Dunn officials suggest that Ralph Rodriguez had played everyone for a fool.) What would the TIF Commission do?
Offer a light sentence as a plea bargain.
"I believe this is the right thing to do," Yaffe said after the TIF commissioners emerged from a closed-door meeting. He opened the floor to public comment. No one spoke.
Bill Torres, president of Kansas City Hispanic Association Contractors Enterprise, watched the proceedings from the rear of the conference room on the fourth floor of Town Pavilion, the skyscraper where the TIF Commission is located. He left before the meeting adjourned.
Torres knew a settlement was in the works. Still, he was disappointed. He wanted liquidated damages.
"That would have really delivered the message," he tells me. "They chose not to."
Torres says the members of his group can take pride in their effort, even if the outcome left something to be desired. "We did what we could to bring forth the public's attention to the flaws in the system," he says.
The system, it's worth noting, casts women and minorities as both victims and perpetrators. As they condemned the practice, Torres and his associates were made to answer for the actions of a fellow Latino who had rented his ethnicity for the price of a BMW.
Attention now turns to J.E. Dunn's headquarters.
Dunn received a TIF deal of its own. The company's new building sits catty-corner to City Hall. TIF is paying for a $19 million garage below ground.
According to the most recent report I've seen, minority subcontractors have banked $8.2 million of the $55.9 million construction budget. Women have been paid $2.3 million.
A company too large to qualify for preferences, Mark One Electric Co. was removed from the list of women-owned businesses ("The Electric Slide," August 13). Sandra Rayford, the TIF Commission's affirmative-action compliance officer, found the error. I take this as a hopeful sign.
An even better sign would come if the city's Human Relations Division got into ass-kicking mode.
A recent city audit determined that the department was slow, set unrealistic goals and lacked consistent monitoring. In other words, it's not very good at its job.
The Dunn headquarters offers an ideal place for the Human Relations Division to work on its monitoring skills. After all, what's to stop Dunn from using fronts to distribute the $1.1 million in work for women and minorities that has been promised?