From Sunday’s Dayton Daily News:
‘Disadvantaged’ firm wins millions in public contracts
Daily News investigation brings up questions of firm’s true ownership.
A wealthy developer, David C. Oakes, and his wife controlled a Washington Twp. company that won millions of dollars in public contracts under a federal program that gives a leg up to companies owned by disadvantaged people, a Dayton Daily News investigation found.
Developer and civil engineer David C. Oakes and his wife, luxury-home builder Shery B. Oakes, controlled TesTech Inc. for years while the engineering company sought lucrative tax-payer-funded contracts claiming Egyptian-American Sherif Adel Aziz of Washington Twp. was the owner, the Daily News found.
Egyptians are not a protected minority group under the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise, or DBE, program. However, Aziz gained entry into the program as an African-American, saying he could trace his heritage to an African Nubian tribe through his religion.
Let me explain how this worked ten years ago. Businesses that achieve DBE status are allowed to win public contracts at up to 10% more money than the actual lowest bidder. The reason I know this is because at a major Air Force installation on the Florida panhandle, the contract for base services had been held by the ManTech corporation for a number of years. But one year, the contractors started identifying themselves by a new name (I forget what; doesn’t matter in this context). It turned out that a DBE had gotten the contract, and then turned around and subcontracted the entire operation back to ManTech, taking a 10% cut for themselves and . . . well, just themselves actually. The contract winner didn’t actually have any employees nor any interest at all in actually doing the work. All they had was a Designated Victim who could overbid by the 10%.
Keep in mind, none of this was a secret. It was apparently entirely lawful.
Continuing . . .
Federal and state officials are investigating possible violations of DBE law by Aziz and have questioned TesTech’s relationship with two other companies controlled by David and Shery Oakes: CESO Inc. and Design Homes and Development Co., the Daily News has learned.
The newspaper's investigation, which followed a July 7 raid by FBI and federal transportation agents, uncovered a pattern of activities that raises questions about the true ownership of TesTech, and whether Aziz runs the company as he has repeatedly told government officials.
Neither Aziz nor the Oakeses agreed to be interviewed for this story, though in a prepared statement released Sept. 23 Aziz said, “I am currently and always have been the sole owner of TesTech Inc.”
TesTech provides environmental assessments and a variety of engineering services that include drilling, field and laboratory testing and inspection work at construction sites. The company’s public clients include Dayton International Airport; Dayton Public Schools; the county engineers in Montgomery, Warren and Greene counties; Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
The company also won engineering work on federally funded highway projects, including reconstruction of Interstate 75 through downtown Dayton. Private sector clients have included WalMart and Target. According to its website, TesTech has 85 employees in Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, Indiana and Missouri.
The company reported annual sales in 2009 of $5.7 million, according to documents Aziz filed with the city of Dayton.
The DBE program that TesTech used to win public contracts was meant to redress discrimination. It gives small businesses owned by women, members of certain minority groups and other disadvantaged people preferential treatment in winning government contracts.
The federal government has an “aspirational goal” of giving DBE companies 10 percent of contracts funded by the U.S. Transportation Department, said Steve Faulkner, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Transportation, which administers the program in Ohio.
“Having DBE status gives you a piece of the pie,” said Eric Chaffee, who chairs the Project for Law and Business Ethics at the University of Dayton Law School.
Penalties for DBE fraud can range from fines and restitution to exclusion from federal contracts and even imprisonment. The Transportation Department’s Inspector General in fiscal 2008 helped to obtain 67 federal indictments, 09 convictions, 104 administrative actions against companies and the collection of $544 million in fines and restitution.
More recently, the g0vernment stepped up enforcement after the Government Accountability Office in 2009 and 2010 found fraud and abuse in other federal contracting set-aside programs. “The main group that gets hurt (by DBE fraud) is the DBE owners who aren’t fraudulent,” said Tim Lohrentz of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development in Oakland, Calif. Fraud also puts legitimate contractors of all races at a competitive disadvantage, he said, and “it puts doubt in the public mind about the program as a whole.”
Can’t have doubt about the program, now can we. How touching the concern about the harm to “legitimate contractors of all races”, when putting white contractors at a “competitive disadvantage” is the point of the whole freakin’ program!
Continuing . . .
On July 7, federal agents executing a sealed warrant removed boxes from the Galleria building at 8534 Yankee St. The building, which is owned by the Oakes-controlled Yankee Partners LLC, houses the headquarters of TesTech, CESO Inc., and Design Homes.
Aziz, in a statement released after the raid, said, “We have been in discussions with the DOT over the last few years, responding to their questions about our company and we have cooperated fully.”
Federal officials wouldn’t comment and have filed no charges.
The Montgomery County Republican Party also has its headquarters in the Galleria building, paying $1000 a month in rent. Party Chairman Greg Gantt said he moved the headquarters there last year after seeking out a landlord who was supportive of the party.
The Oakeses and their companies are major political donors, contributing at least $79,700 since 2002 to the county GOP and mostly Republican national, state, and local candidates.
“I don’t see any real connection between whatever issues are going on with the Department of transportation and our leasing space from (the Oakeses),” Gantt said. “Based on my personal knowledge with them and what personal conversations we have had, they have a conservative Republican philosophy and that’s why they are supportive (of Republicans).”
I tried looking up the Oakeses on OpenSecrets.org, but all I could find was about $2500 in donations to congressman Mike Turner.
[Boring section about case details deleted.]
Continuing . . .
Minority heritage questioned
Ohio and federal transportation officials are moving to strip TesTech of its DBE status. On March 18, ODOT sent a letter to Aziz giving him the reasons for the decertification: Officials believe he is not a member of a recognized minority group, makes too much money to qualify and isn’t the true majority owner.
Aziz appealed the finding, signing the letter “president and Sole Shareholder” of TesTech. A November hearing is expected.
Aziz won the DBE certification on appeal in 2005 after being turned down by the state in 1998 and 2004.
To be eligible for DBE status, companies must be at least 51 percent owned by socially and economically disadvantaged people, and those owners must be in control of day-to-day operations. There are limits on a company’s gross receipts, and the personal net worth of a disadvantaged owner cannot exceed $1.3 million, an amount that was increased in January from $750,000.
Right. Because having a net worth of six times the national median just isn’t enough. The truly disadvantaged have a net worth ten times the median.
TesTech benefited greatly from its DBE status. It’s impossible to know how much in taxpayer money the company was paid or how much it obtained as a DBE because TesTech did business with so many government entities. But a Daily News review of area and state contracts found TesTech was paid at least $4.7 million since 2003 by the Ohio Department of Transportation, Montgomery County, the city of Dayton and Dayton Public Schools.
TesTech’s DBE status assisted it in getting much of that work, contract documents and interviews show.
Continuing . . .
TesTech was incorporated in Ohio in 1997 by local attorney James Weprin, who has incorporated various Oakes companies. After being turned down as a DBE by the state of Ohio in 1998, the company gained limited DBE status in 2002 through the Columbus Airport Authority and a year later through the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. After Ohio approved TesTech as a DBE in 2005 it was certified by Michigan and Kentucky. Aziz withdrew TesTech from Michigan’s DBE program in 2009 and the company was decertified by Kentucky in 2010 after TesTech briefly dropped out of Ohio’s program.
Aziz, 49, holds bachelor’s and master's degrees in engineering, respectively, from Egypt’s Cairo University and Wright State University. He was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1991. Aziz and his wife, Dr. Nancy Zaki, own a $643,390 Washington Twp. home built on land they bought from Shery and David Oakes Ltd. in 2004 according to the Montgomery County Auditor.
Aziz gave sharply different versions of his net worth to two separate government entities last year.
In April 2010, when he applied for the city of Dayton’s set-aside programs for small, disadvantaged and minority businesses, he said he had a negative net worth of $46,145. But when he reapplied in October 2010 for DBE status in Michigan, Aziz stated his net worth of $470,697.
I don’t see any reason to believe either of these numbers, but it says about the state of mortgage lending when an Egyptian immigrant can borrow that kind of money with so little capital.
[More boring case history deleted.]
Continuing . . .
The Oakeses live in their $2.3 million home in Washington Twp. where they hosted a major fund-raiser for the American Cancer Society, the Cattle Baron's Ball, in August 2010. Shery, 51, and her family emigrated from Egypt in 1965 and she was naturalized in the United States in 1974. Her father, Bushra Migally, was a professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin, where Shery earned a bachelor's degree in business administration. In 1987 she established Design Homes and Development Co., the most high-profile of the couple's many companies. In 2007 reality TV star Anna Nicole Smith's lavish post-funeral reception was held at a $ 14.9 million vacation property in the Bahamas built by Design Homes and owned by Shery Oakes. It is not clear if she still owns the property. Shery also is chief executive of DHDC Inc., a real estate, construction and civil survey services company. She successfully applied for Minority Business Enterprise certification through the state for DHDC, stating she is an African-American. The MBE program, which does not place limits on personal net worth, opens doors to set-asides for public contracts but not the federally mandated access to the big pot of transportation money available to DBE companies.
In 2004 Shery sought state assistance for construction of a new headquarters for the various Oakes companies. In her application, she identified the "Oakes Companies" as CESO Inc., CESO Testing Technology, TesTech Inc. and Design Homes - "all owned by David and Shery Oakes."
"All of the Oakes Companies work hand in hand for each other in services,” she wrote in the application filed with the Ohio Department of Development. “No changes in ownership will occur.”
That same year Aziz applied for federal DBE status, telling ODOT he was the owner of TesTech.
Does anyone still get rich by creating value anymore? Or is it always just value transference.
[More boring ownership history deleted.]
Concluding . . .
Experts on DBE fraud say the results of the Daily News investigation raise troubling questions about the true ownership of TesTech.
"It certainly sounds like you have an affiliation problem here," said Edward DeLisle, a Philadelphia attorney who specializes in DBE fraud cases. "The highest officer has to be the disadvantaged person. It (the title of president) certainly would signify that he (Oakes) has control."
DeLisle said fraud in DBE contracts is becoming more common.
In today's down economy, "you're seeing companies, just to stay alive, creating companies run by people that claim to be disadvantaged," he said. "Companies are getting desperate, especially in the construction industry where the private industry has pretty much dried up."
The U.S. Transportation Department's inspector general lists DBE fraud as its top priority. Common fraud schemes include use of front companies that do little or no actual work, or partnering in illegal ways with DBEs, according to the IG website and a number of experts an the program.
"The biggest one we see is, they will hire somebody to be the designated minority or veteran," said Earl Gregorich, who heads the Small Business Development Center at Wright State University. "(It's) kind of a straw man situation. It’s the most common because it's the easiest one to pull off."
Let’s review the yummy diversiness:
- First generation immigrants claiming benefits for “discrimination;”
- Politically connected real estate developers;
- Racial redistribution at the expense of whites; and
- Government corruption.
When I first heard of this story, I almost couldn’t believe it. Not because the story is unlikely; on the contrary, it’s all too likely. But rather because I usually read about this kind of thing at Half Sigma, or iSteve, or VDare. But in fact, this one article is the only reporting in the country on the Oakes/Aziz connection, and the bulk of it is behind the Daily News subscriber firewall. I only found out about it because I have friends in Ohio. It’s almost as if the media don’t want us to know about corruption in DBE contracting.