City on a Hill: Certifiably screwed

January 24, 2013

It’s not often I agree with anything a Chamber of Commerce chapter has to say, but even your friendly progressive columnist has to admit the D.C. Chamber and its business lobby allies have a point in their criticism of the Certified Business Enterprise program. On Tuesday, they wrote a letter to Mayor Vincent Gray asking him to veto a bill passed by the D.C. Council late last year tightening up requirements for businesses participating in the program.

First, some background: The Certified Business Enterprise program was first established in 1977 during now-Councilmember Marion Barry’s (D-Ward 8) reign as mayor. Initially, its goal was to help local, minority-owned businesses win city contracting deals long dominated by white companies. The program works by assigning preference points to participating companies, giving them a leg up in the contract bidding process and determining how hundreds of millions in public money are spent each year. Even Barry and his allies concede the program has spiraled out of control. Alan Suderman at Washington City Paper, the only reporter in the city to substantially cover the issue in recent years, writes,

“… 20 years after courts limited race-based programs, the CBE program has morphed into an unrecognizable mess that gives special preference to any business of any size based in D.C.—or pretending to be based in the city—that knows how to play the game. Critics say the setup gives mammoth, politically connected firms unfair advantages, invites waste and fraud, and actually hurts, rather than helps, smaller minority-owned businesses.”

For now, don’t worry about the bill itself that’s got the business community peeved. The companies are worried about having to set aside more money during construction projects and deal with more legislative oversight, but it’s their push for a complete reassessment of the program we can all get behind. After all, the CBE program’s been implicated in any number of scandals, such as the construction of the new Anacostia High School, well chronicled in the City Paper archives.

The money line of the letter to Gray reads, “There have been three legislative attempts to ‘reform’ the CBE program over the past seven years, but in no case has the attempt apparently included a basic re-think of program assumptions.”

Perhaps this is because a number of D.C. Councilmembers have something to gain from the program as is. Just before they passed the bill, Councilmember David Catania (I-At-Large) proposed an ill-fated amendment that would have limited the number of preference points a CBE company could receive if more than half of its workforce came from outside the District, giving an advantage in the bidding process to those businesses that actually employ local workers.

Sounds reasonable, but the amendment was dead on arrival. Vincent Orange (D-At-Large), who Suderman calls “self-appointed champion of the CBE program,” said there wasn’t enough time to vet the proposal, functionally standing up for the current CBE companies that have majority non-District workforces.

Catania speculated after the meeting that some of his colleagues didn’t vote for the amendment because of personal business interests. At first look, he may be onto something. Councilmember Anita Bonds (D-At-Large), head of corporate relations for a CBE road-paving company Fort Meyer Construction, voted against the amendment. Bonds said she didn’t know off hand how much of Fort Meyer’s workforce is from the District, but the fact she had to be asked should illustrate the conflict of interest. Catania isn’t free from the criticism either. His employer, M.C. Dean Inc., could very well have a CBE as a competitor one day if a French firm vying for a $100 million streetlight contract successfully relocates to Ward 8.

Now, we shouldn’t pretend this is the only place where crony capitalism rears its ugly head in District governance, but Georgetown could have a say in this one. As it turns out, our university supports the program. A page on the Georgetown Institutional Diversity, Equity & Affirmative Action site says we go for CBEs pretty much whenever we get money.

“It is the policy of Georgetown University,” it reads, “to provide maximum opportunity to Certified Business Enterprises to participate in the performance of contracts funded fully or partially by funds from the federal government or from financial benefits derived from bond issues approved by the District of Columbia or funded by private funds.”

As disheartening as it might be to see our administration involved in such a shady program, it presents us with an opportunity. If we can marshal the political influence of District business interests, concerned citizens, and D.C.’s biggest employer (that’s us), we can build a coalition strong enough to overpower the personal business interests of many Councilmembers.

The Mayor has already said new reforms for the CBE program are coming down the pike, but if history’s any guide it’s going to take a lot more than another promise. If Georgetown and District politicians can rally together to support the local business and worker, they’ll be vocal and public about their opposition to the Certified Business Enterprise program as it is today.


Gavin Bade
Gavin Bade is Managing Editor of The Georgetown Voice


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