Ex-city official targeted in grand jury investigation

State probe scrutinizes Tonkins' handling of minority business office

May 28, 2004|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore contractor says the former head of the mayor's minority business office pressured him to pay two New Jersey men for no-show work on a downtown project - an allegation that has spurred a state grand jury investigation.

Andre Mellerson, owner of a small electrical contracting firm, says that his refusal to hire two men recommended by Owen M. Tonkins coincided with an end to all business referrals from the former official's office.

Mellerson said he formally complained about Tonkins in a letter to Mayor Martin O'Malley's office last year. City officials referred the complaint to state prosecutors, sources said.

Earlier this month, three contractors were subpoenaed for records detailing their dealings with Tonkins, the former director of the Mayor's Office of Minority Business Development, according to sources familiar with the probe.

"It's a situation that happened, and I still haven't gotten any satisfaction about it," said Mellerson, owner of A.M. & Son Electric. Increasing participation of minority businesses like Mellerson's in government contracts and in private development jobs has long been one of O'Malley's top priorities. The mayor appointed Tonkins in March 2001 to carry out the policy, but Tonkins left the administration in December to pursue other interests, city officials said.

The state probe of Tonkins coincides with a federal grand jury investigation examining relationships certain minority developers have had with City Council President Sheila Dixon and three former city officials, including Tonkins.

Tonkins did not return several messages left on his answering machine, and a note requesting comment left at his house went unanswered. An O'Malley spokeswoman said the mayor's office does not discuss personnel issues.

Last month, after a speech about community development efforts, O'Malley responded briefly to questions about Tonkins.

"I'm always cautioned by city solicitors not to talk about personnel matters," O'Malley said.

Acting City Solicitor Donald R. Huskey said he could not comment about Tonkins.

When asked last month if city officials had conducted an investigation into Tonkins' office, O'Malley said, "Typically, if we have concerns we refer them to the proper agencies.

"We ... try never ever to allow any misjudgments or indiscretions by anyone in government to bring ill repute to positive programs like MBE [minority business enterprise]," O'Malley said.

James I. Cabezas, chief investigator for the state prosecutor's office, said that "grand jury proceedings are secret and confidential. I can't confirm or deny any investigation."

At the center of the state prosecutor's investigation is Tonkins and how he ran the Minority Business Development office, sources said. The office works to build relationships between established companies and firms certified by the city as being owned by minorities or women.

The subpoenas issued earlier this month to three companies asked for records detailing financial dealings they have had with Tonkins - including, in at least one case, work they performed on his home - and any contact they had with the two New Jersey businessmen, said Mellerson and a source familiar with the investigation.

Mellerson confirmed that he received such a subpoena. One other company that has been subpoenaed is minority developer Banks Contracting Co. a source said. Kenneth R. Banks, the company's president, did not return numerous calls seeking comment.

Mellerson confirmed that he performed work on Tonkins' home, but he said he was paid for the job.

Mellerson said in an interview that Tonkins' office helped him secure a contract for work on the Standard Oil building redevelopment project that began in late 2001. He said that he wrote in his complaint that referrals from the city office ended after he ended work on the project in March 2003.

Mellerson said that Tonkins refused to work with him because he did not form a "joint venture" with two New Jersey businessmen Tonkins referred to him. Mellerson said Tonkins told him that his company was too small to handle the $294,000 electrical contract at the 501 St. Paul St. building and that the two businessmen could help.

Mellerson said that he felt pressured by Tonkins to use the two men but that he chose not to after he determined they expected to be paid, but not to perform any work. He said Tonkins became upset after learning that he had not used the men.

Mellerson said the Standard Oil building contract, awarded to him by general contractor James M. Jost & Co. Inc. in late 2001, was his company's biggest. He said that he was thankful to get the yearlong job but that he was compelled to complain because he felt that Tonkins was no longer referring his firm to developers in need of minority subcontractors.

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