Maryland revamps minority program

Firms may have been improperly certified for state contracts

Sun Follow-up

May 25, 2007|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN REPORTER

Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari said yesterday that he has revamped the leadership of the Minority Business Enterprise Program to bring it "more accountability and transparency" after complaints and a recent audit highlighted troubles with the state office.

Porcari had determined that some companies might have been improperly certified for the program that aims to bolster companies run by women and minorities. He has said that one company was approved through a "cynical manipulation" of the process.

That company, Isis Technology Consulting LLC, was the subject of a recent Sun investigation and has since withdrawn from the program. A separate Sun article detailed problems with minority firms at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, where five of the 15 program participants in the past three years have left.

Earlier this month, Porcari ordered a thorough review of the more than 3,000 minority businesses' applications and separate audits of the firms at the airport and the company hired to manage them. He said he would continue revamping the statewide program that his agency has overseen since its inception in 1978 to ensure that it is achieving its mission of providing business opportunities to minorities, women and the financially disadvantaged.

The two deputies he named yesterday to oversee the program at the Transportation Department will replace those appointed during the administration of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Porcari was appointed in January by Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat.

"No one is satisfied with the current status of the program," Porcari said in an interview yesterday. "What we wanted was the leadership and expertise to take it to the next level."

Porcari did not criticize the performance of those who held the positions previously, saying the office needs to focus on the future.

Karen Williams Gooden took over last week as assistant secretary, overseeing the offices of Minority Business Enterprise, Disabilities, and Engineering and Procurement. She had been a public attorney in Prince George's County, and among her duties was providing legal counsel to the county's Minority Business Opportunities Commission.

Gooden, who state officials say replaces Debra F. Carter as assistant secretary, said yesterday that she wants the office to be an advocate for more minority business opportunities. Carter could not be reached for comment.

Zenita Wickham Hurley will replace Terry Bright as director of the Office of Minority Business Enterprise, state officials said. Bright, who was not immediately available for comment, has been the acting director of the office and will remain on staff at the Transportation Department.

Hurley currently works at the Transportation Department as an assistant attorney general with a focus on minority business certification and compliance. In that post, she was working to revamp the manual that dictates how the minority program works -- changes that will require federal approval. She will begin her new job June 20.

Hurley expects to incorporate Porcari's plan to bring more accountability to the program, which includes better documentation of decision-making.

"Overall, the Maryland Minority Business Enterprise program is a very good program," Hurley said. "There are some loopholes in the process that have come to light. We'll be working hard to close those loopholes and make changes to policies."

Hurley said she wants to be sure that businesses are properly certified for the program, which makes companies eligible for state contracts. Hurley said she wants to ensure that companies approved for the program are not serving as "pass throughs," or fronts, for nonminority firms.

A recently released review showed problems with six of 39 applications for state-certified, minority-owned firms that were expedited -- or "fast tracked" -- between 2001 and 2006.

One was Isis, which was headed by Republican strategist Carol L. Hirschburg. The firm was seeking a piece of a $110 million technology contract with the Department of Human Resources, and state auditors said it was not properly approved for the program. Hirschburg contends that she did nothing wrong. She has withdrawn from the minority program, and the state prosecutor's office has requested documents from both the Transportation and the Human Resources departments.

Two other applications that Porcari's auditors questioned belonged to businesses at the airport. One was a partnership called Airport 2000 Concessions that runs several restaurants. Its certification was not renewed this year because the minority member Erroll Brown left the company. Auditors now say they are not sure that a minority member ever had enough control for the company to qualify for the program.

Brown had been complaining for more than a year about his lack of control. But other partners insist that minority members operate the company.

Brown said yesterday that he was pleased that Porcari had ordered audits and hired new staff members.

"I'm encouraged by steps that the secretary has taken," he said, "and I can only hope that it translates into better accountability at BWI for the minority businesses."

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