A sort of Head Start program for adults, designed to help companies owned by minorities and women break down racial barriers in heavy construction, can, in the wrong hands, turn into a greedy free-for-all.
The goal is too worthwhile to be abandoned. But it may take action in Washington to pull the program out of the swamp of sharp practices and simple chiseling that Times writers John R. Hurst and Ronald B. Taylor described in a recent series of reports.
In dollar amounts, the cheating could be dismissed as small change. What they found is that as much as 9% of money that should go to minority contractors for work on the RTD’s Metro Rail is going to companies that are either bogus front groups for white contractors or fail to meet the means test of true minority groups. But in a program founded on principle, principle has to count.
Problems with the program, started in 1977 with a goal of signing up minority companies for 10% of the nation’s public works projects, crop up all over the country, but Hurst and Taylor found plenty to write about in Los Angeles alone.
An important part of the problem is that under pressure of meeting construction deadlines, public agencies often follow the path of least resistance. Take the case of Jon McGrath, who did $28.6 million worth of subcontracting on Metro Rail on the strength of his claim to a Cherokee ancestor.
McGrath established to the satisfaction of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma that he is 1/64th American Indian. A prime contractor accepted that as evidence of minority ownership of his company and signed McGrath up to do some work.
But, as Hurst and Taylor wrote, federal guidelines say that being black or Indian or a woman is not enough. The whole idea was a running start, not welfare. The problems cannot be used as an excuse to scuttle a worthwhile program. But the federal government can and must get a handle on the abuses that do occur and bring them to a halt.