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Feds uncover race, sex bias at MDOT

Order state to pay Black contractor $12 million

By C. Kelly
The Michigan Citizen

Dr. Bellandra Foster

Dr. Bellandra Foster

DETROIT — President of BBF Engineering Services, Dr. Bellandra Foster has been systematically discriminated against by the Michigan Department of Transportation. Years of discrimination were acknowledged recently when the federal government recommended that MDOT pay former contractor and licensed professional engineer Bellandra Foster $12 million.

“This is difficult and has been very difficult for a number of years,” said Foster in a phone interview. “It is not over and there are not more minority contractors doing work. It has really been a shame but this is where the rubber meets the road. This is what really goes on.”

Through the years, MDOT changed Foster’s bids, reduced and cut bids or did not award contracts to BBF, despite her submitting the best proposals, according to a report by Federal Highway Administration Office of Civil Rights.

MDOT had Foster’s hours and pay reduced then refused to meet with her after she was denied work or her contract changed. MDOT also withheld and slowed payment to BBF.

The official report found that Foster, an industry professional who had worked at MDOT  and at one point was recruited by Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson’s administration to serve as Director of the Bureau of Highways and Streets, had been discriminated against on the basis of race and sex.

“There is a climate of race and gender discrimination at MDOT that has been allowed to prevail for numerous years. The ‘good old boys’ network,” Foster said.

In the mid-1990s Foster, an African American woman and service contractor, began bidding on work through MDOT.

Over time, she built a successful company eventually becoming a prime contractor with MDOT. She hired up to 14 people and won MDOT’s Disadvantaged Business of the Year award in 2008 and the FHA named BBF its U.S. Department of Transportation Minority Business Enterprise of the Year in 1998.

Yet, MDOT project engineers, through a subjective process, unfairly and systematically stopped contracting with Foster and, she believes, “blacklisted” her from the MDOT contracting process, according to a federal report.

Foster went from being a prime contractor able to hire other Disadvantage Business Enterprises (DBEs) to getting no work from MDOT.

When MDOT awards contracts, projects with federal dollars have a DBE component, which is the federal government’s effort to promote and foster ‘minority’ business. It is a corrective, civil rights measure to remedy the lack of Black-owned businesses in the construction and construction services business. Women, African Americans and other minority groups are included in the DBE protections.

One of the MDOT Project Engineers who actively worked to reduce BBF work with MDOT was Victor Judnic, according to the FHWA Office of Civil Rights report.

In 2006, Judnic cut BBF’s contract in half for its work on the Lodge Freeway in Detroit. Judnic and his efforts against Foster were specifically named in the report along with Mark Steucher, who changed Foster’s bid evaluation scores. As a result, BBF would lose the state work.

Foster filed a formal complaint of Title VI violations with the Federal Highway Authority in 2010. The Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin in programs receiving federal assistance. As a result of her complaint she says, in 2011, she did not receive any work from MDOT and was, in fact, investigated. She believes she was “blacklisted.”

The report found that BBF lost almost $9 million in work from MDOT in the years 2006 to 2009 because of discrimination on the basis of race and sex. Therefore, the report found that BBF should be awarded $12 million in damages.

The years of discrimination become even more important after the most recent State of the State address.

According to Gov. Rick Snyder’s State of the Union address, billions of dollars will go to transportation in Michigan in upcoming years. Under Snyder, the state has redirected two out of every six cents in sales tax collection to highways.

Earlier this month, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood committed $25 million in federal dollars to the state’s regional transit plans. The upcoming Detroit River bridge crossing to Canada is estimated to be a $2.1 billion project.

Yet, systematic discrimination and no programs for remediation at MDOT will ensure Black contractors and other disadvantaged businesses will be left out.

“If an agency is allowed to discriminate, with no cause of action, what is to say it won’t happen again six months or six years from now? It will. There are companies that won’t even be allowed to get in the mix. Right now there aren’t any other companies able to do prime contracting,” says Foster who believes she wasn’t the only Black contractor through the years who experienced racism. She believes many of the other contractors have left the state.

“They just left and, without question, in the states that they went to, they are doing better,” said Foster.

Foster was a Detroit-based, Black woman-owned business, who was not able to benefit from President Obama’s stimulus funds or current transportation projects in Michigan because of discrimination. She has filed a lawsuit against MDOT and has left the state.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has also recommended MDOT form “a process improvement team aimed at strengthening MDOT’s monitoring of the consulting/service contract award process.”

However, no announcements of remediation or changes in the contracting process have come from MDOT.

MDOT spokesperson Jeff Cranson said he would not be able to comment on the  Foster lawsuit but did say the organization is “always reviewing our process and looking at the best way to do things.”

When asked if any new processes were formed after the Foster complaint in 2010, Cranson said: “I don’t think so. I don’t think things have been reviewed have been changed.”

Gov. Snyder’s office had not returned calls by press time.

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