Margie Sollinger knew something wasn’t right about the companies doing business with Portland, Oregon. As the city’s ombudsman, Sollinger had for some time been hearing from business owners about fraud in the city’s minority- and women-owned contracting program. But it wasn’t until she received a specific complaint in 2013 — about a certified minority-owned construction firm doing work for Portland’s housing authority — that she decided to take action. According to the complaint, the firm was merely acting as a pass-through, winning valuable city contracts and then subcontracting the work out to non-minority companies.
Like many cities and states, Portland has a program allowing it to give special consideration to women- and minority-owned companies when handing out government contracts. The goal, of course, is to help support traditionally disadvantaged companies by giving them a leg up. But as Sollinger began to discover, the city wasn’t necessarily helping the firms it thought it was.
When she first started looking into the housing contract complaint, she wasn’t sure where to turn. “As ombudsman, the most I can really do is make recommendations,” she says. “But even still, I reached a lot of dead ends.” According to state law, the city of Portland wasn’t allowed to take action against minority-owned firms it believed to be fraudulent; those complaints had to be referred to the state. But Sollinger says the state Office of Minority, Women and Emerging Small Businesses initially shrugged her off. So she referred the case to the Oregon Department of Justice, where the investigation continued for nearly two years. Ultimately, the contracting firm was forced to relinquish its minority certification and pay $15,000 to the state. State legislators took an interest in the issue, and last year passed legislation allowing all public agencies in the state to conduct their own investigations into future allegations of minority contract fraud.
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