With construction jobs at a premium, a contractor who served time for employing illegals was hired to help build the Mississippi River Bridge. It was an attempt to raise minority participation. Chris Hayes investigated the troubled waters around a bridge project that's supposed to give all contractors a fair chance at work.
You can already see how the Mississippi River Bridge will change the face of St. Louis. The breathtaking span is cutting its mark through Illinois and North St. Louis. MoDOT touts a list of disadvantaged businesses, or DBEs, hired to build the monumental span.
A DBE is a business owned by someone who's been excluded historically, like a woman or African American. So the government tells primary contractors it might not pay out as many taxdollars if primary contractors don't hire enough DBEs.
So a Mississippi company, Tarrasco steel came to work here after getting certification as a DBE, even after its owner plead guilty to using 'illegal aliens' to work on 'critical infrastructure.' Tarrasco recently left the St. Louis job after iron workers sued for $270,000 in unpaid benefits.
Another contractor, listed by MoDOT as a DBE, was later found not to be. Jay Riley supplies most of the bridge`s concrete, millions of dollars of it.
State investigators now question whether he`s really the one getting the money. Riley's adamant he is.
Jay Riley told us, "I've been on my own 15 years. I've been around this all my life. I`m not a front company, not a front company. There`s a lot of them out here. They're not here, not right here."
MoDOT originally certified his Illinois company, called 'Riley Illinois', as a minority business. But IDOT told Missouri regulators to look deeper, as we did.
So we ran each of the license plates on each of the 8 trucks parked at the headquarters to 'Riley Illinois' and they come back to a completely different address that belongs to an entirely different company. That company's Kienstra, a majority owned business where no one would comment.
During a personal visit I told representatives from Kienstra, "I`d at least want to hear his (the owner's) side of the story."
Only Jay Riley would answer.
Hayes asked, "Is it possible you`re just getting played?"
Riley answered, "Well.. I guess there always has to be a common interest between both parties for a partnership to work anyway, so, I got an opportunity to work on a project that may come along once in a lifetime and I don`t know what their ultimate motivating factor may be, but everybody`s in it to make money bottom line."
Riley said he`s the only minority concrete contractor around and he`s not nearly big enough to do the job alone.
Riley explained, "I went to this meeting and there was a gentleman that wanted us, he said 'we want you guys to think outside of the box, come up with creative ideas so we need to maximize our minority on this project' and this was a MoDOT rep. So I had an idea on what I wanted to do but I didn`t present it because I didn`t think they would like it."
MoDOT did like the idea. I asked project director Greg Horn, "(Is that) plausible that somebody approached him and said, `think outside of the box?`
Horn responded, "Well I guess what we`re saying about that... what we`re trying to do is get prime contractors to give opportunities to the small, the DBE firms, you know, as opposed to saying I`ve used these companies in the past or these are my ones, that I`ve always used. We want them to go out and work with these other companies. We always think about the goal. The goal is to have these companies be competitive in the future so they grow and they learn and they build capacity."
Horn says the arrangement works if Riley grows and helps others. But it`s that question, about whether Riley is really in charge, that came up when Missouri revoked his certification while on the bridge job. Regulators pointed out Riley`s just one of four members of his Illinois corporation. The other three are with his partner company -- three non-minorities. That means Riley`s outvoted.
Activist Eric Vickers says it doesn't pass the test. He explained, "There`s that chance, and apparently what MoDOT saw, is that these dollars that are supposed to be going to a minority firm are actually ending up in the hands of a white owned firm and that is not the intention of the regulations."
Though Riley`s Illinois company was decertified as a DBE, he`s still on the job, which means the bridge is now under its hiring goal for DBEs.
Vickers added, "It`s better to have legitimate minority participation then have fake numbers that show some goal being met."
The main contractor is sticking with Riley`s Illinois company, even though it won`t get credit towards its DBE goal.
Vickers added, "That`s commendable because what that shows is (Riley) was able to perform and they have trust in his performance and they are not just using him because he happens to be minority."
The main contractor won`t say what you`re paying for that concrete, or whether it`s costing you more than losing bidders would`ve charged. That`s private according to MoDOT, as are the names of losing bidders and how much taxpayers could have paid for the bridge's concrete.
MoDOT also answered why Tarrasco steel was hired in St. Louis after being caught in a Federal illegal worker sting. Greg Horn explained that Tarrasco`s owner resolved all of his legal challenges before getting hired by the primary contractor here. The steel company`s owner, Jose Santos Gonzales, did not respond.