Unequal Opportunity

Does who you know -- not what you are -- open the door to affirmative action business in Houston?

Sure, Tony Brigham was hoping to make some money when, in May 1992, he sent a letter to Mayor Bob Lanier and the Houston City Council asking that they consider him for a piece of city business. But Brigham, a black man struggling to make ends meet with a small collection agency, also saw some side benefits for the city if it hired his company to help track down traffic-ticket scofflaws -- such as a little extra cash for crime prevention, not to mention the creation of a few jobs.

Brigham received a reply from Lanier informing him of an upcoming contract to collect delinquent tickets. Encouraged, Brigham readied a proposal from his Enforce By Law Recovery, which was one of ten collection companies that sent bids to the city that November.

In March 1993, Brigham was disappointed to learn that the bulk of the city contract had gone to Municipal Collections Inc. His disappointment turned to outrage when he found out that the remainder -- 19 percent that had been set aside for a minority-owned firm -- went to Bayou City Enterprises, a company, Brigham learned, partly owned by the uncle of a city councilman.

As a small business, his Enforce By Law Recovery was, Brigham knew, a long shot to become the primary collector of delinquent tickets. But Brigham finds it hard to believe that Bayou City -- a firm that's been asked by City Controller George Greanias to prove it didn't get thousands of city dollars for doing little or nothing -- was a better choice to meet the contract's minority participation goal. After all, unlike Bayou City, his collection agency had been "certified" to get business under the city's Minority, Women and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program, long before the contract was awarded.

In Brigham's view, Bayou City's owners were opportunists looking to cash in on their connections.

"I'm sitting here," he says, "watching people make a mockery of the system."
Brigham's situation -- and, by extension, that of the 1,500 other businesses certified in the city's MWDBE program -- has largely been ignored in a standoff that began a month ago when Greanias began withholding payments to Bayou City after his office questioned whether the firm was performing any duties as the MWDBE component of the ticket-collection contract. Greanias has asked for documentation that proves Bayou City is actually doing what it claims, supervising the printing and mailing out of delinquent notices. At press time, the company had yet to produce the requested documentation.

Instead, the firm's principals -- lawyers John Davis, Ray Shackelford and Walter Strickland -- have been joined by a few of the city's African-American leaders in accusing Greanias of playing "plantation politics" and creating the controversy as a prelude to a run for mayor. They have even challenged his right to review Bayou City's work, for which it was being paid roughly $25,000 a month.

"Without question, he has overstepped the bounds of what the city controller does," Shackelford told KCOH/1430 AM talk-show host Michael Harris on January 10.

Shackelford has done more than simply question the city bill-payer's right to audit a city contract; he's also charged that Greanias is trying to undermine the entire MWDBE concept. "This is the larger picture, in my mind," Shackelford told Harris. "Where it stands basically throughout the United States is that minorities are being attacked in every city on what right do they have to a certain piece of the pie."

Greanias rejects Shackelford's assertion. "What hurts the program," he says, "is if you don't do everything you possibly can to assure its integrity, to be able to give assurances that it's being run absolutely aboveboard, with no favoritism."

Which leads to the question on Tony Brigham's mind: how, exactly, did Bayou City Enterprises get a piece of this particular pie?

It's a question worth asking, because in awarding the collection contract the city appears to have ignored its own affirmative action rules, opening the door for a company that has since all but admitted that its sole expertise is an ability to farm out work to another firm. That story, coupled with a rather detailed defense of the company's role by Mayor Bob Lanier, unfortunately has cast a shadow on a program that indeed is under attack from outside the minority community.

"Everybody's crying about the black and white issue," Brigham says. "But what's the right issue? That's all I want to know. If you're going to go by the guidelines, then go by the guidelines. If not, then throw [those guidelines] away."

The somewhat inconsistent explanations of how Bayou City ended up part of the contract for the collection of tickets up to 210 days delinquent suggest that "thrown away" is an accurate description of what happened to the MWDBE guidelines in March 1993.

Here's a brief synopsis of who's said what about the deal and the ongoing controversy:

* Benjamin L. Hall III, who resigned as Lanier's city attorney on December 31, has said he wrote Bayou City into the contract. But Hall has variously said that either Bayou City's involvement was a "joint-venture kind of deal" with Municipal Collections; or that Municipal Collections lacked a minority subcontractor and Bayou City fit the bill; or that he was only following orders.

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