Baltimore banned the contractor for two years for ‘absolute disregard’ for minority business laws

Baltimore leaders imposed a rare sanction Wednesday against a longtime business partner for repeatedly failing to make timely payments to a West Baltimore company, a decision that signals the city’s commitment to upholding the standards of women-owned and minority-owned businesses.

The city’s five-member Board of Estimates unanimously approved a two-year suspension of contracts with New Jersey-based Metra Industries for a series of late payments to a black-owned subcontractor and misrepresenting the reasons for those missed payments by more than a month. Examination. In addition to the ban, the city canceled an $8.4 million water infrastructure contract with Metra, which the city has worked with for more than 20 years.

“This is a new game in town,” City Council President Nick Mosby said after the vote. There has long been talk of “whispering” in Baltimore by big contractors like Metra, but the House president-elect has vowed to be proactive in protecting the future of minority- and women-owned contractors.

Metra has long been under scrutiny for complying with the city’s contract requirements for minority- and women-owned businesses, drawing reprimands even when Mayor Brandon Scott was council president. But Wednesday’s sanctions came in response to a narrow range of allegations against West Baltimore-based Economic International Construction Company Inc., or IECCI, for repeated late payments.

A spokesman for the Department of Public Works, which contracts with Metra, did not respond to a request Wednesday afternoon for the total dollar amount of the company’s settlement with the city.

Christopher Lundy, head of the city’s Office of Minority and Women’s Business Opportunities, detailed a series of missed payments by Metra to IECCI, in one case taking two years to complete. According to city bylaws, Metra was required to complete payments to the subcontractor within seven days. The office’s investigation found similar problems with other Metra contracts, Lundy said, but board members on Wednesday limited their decision to the EICCI payments.

Lundy, who asked for the maximum two-year ban for Metra, said this pattern of behavior showed “absolute disregard” for the city’s minority and women’s business program. Before Wednesday, the city had sanctioned only one other company for failing to meet minority business requirements, Lundy said.

After months of delinquent payments, EICCI has stopped working for Metra, a decision Lundy, the largest company, has expressed to his office. The city began investigating the situation in March 2022, and Lund said the investigation began to threaten Metra’s contract with the city when it took drastic measures to cover up the missed payments. EICCI filed a formal complaint against Metra in October last year, and as of December 15, had not recovered more than $40,000 in late fees.

Metra’s attorney did not dispute the late fees, but urged the board to consider a lighter penalty. Metra’s two-year suspension with the city for a nearly $560,000 contract with EICCI is too harsh for a small share of late payments, they argued, especially given the confusion and delays common in the early years of the pandemic. Venroy July, Advocate of Metra.

The city’s ongoing payment problems have prevented Metra from fulfilling its subcontract, July said. The attorney disputed some aspects of the city’s investigation, as well as the actual amount of the total late fees. Metra withheld payments from EICCI after determining the West Baltimore company was in violation of its contract, he said in July, unaware that the company was still required by city law to make those payments.

“We think this is an excessive punishment for this particular mistake. He said that the organization is committed to providing support to pay on time.

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A panel of city leaders disputed Metra’s explanation, accusing the company of “deception” and questioned a July proposal that tens of thousands of dollars in late payments should not be subject to severe penalties. That amount of money would make a big difference to many of the city’s minority-owned businesses, said Eboni Thompson, the city’s legal counsel. “It’s a big deal.”

At one point, Comptroller Bill Henry Lundy, who had become increasingly intense with July, said he was impressed that she could get through the entire event without uttering the words “liar.”

In a statement before Wednesday’s meeting, EICCI’s lawyer Thiru Vignarajah respected the expected sanctions against Metra. “It shouldn’t take this much to motivate the city to do the right thing. But better late than never,” he said.

Vignarajah, who ran unsuccessful campaigns for mayor and state attorney, has held several news conferences in recent weeks calling attention to Metra’s history of missed customer payments.

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