Firm Rebuilding Hartford Schools Hired Officials Who Picked It
Hartford Schools Project
JEFFREY B. COHEN
December 07, 2008
D. Anwar Al-Ghani was one of six people who unanimously picked a Kansas company in 2001 to oversee Hartford's massive school construction project.
Just over three years later, Al-Ghani's firm was consulting for that company, Diggs Construction — at one point making $15,000 a month working as a liaison between Diggs and its minority contractors. Documents provided by Diggs show that Al-Ghani could make a total of more than $680,000 by the time his contract expires in April.
But Al-Ghani is not the only member of the selection committee to have made money from the company. In fact, three of the six committee members have since gotten paid by Diggs for work.
James Willingham, head of the Urban League of Greater Hartford, said he did consulting work for Diggs that paid him a total of roughly $15,000 beginning in 2006.
That same year, former school building committee Chairman Louis Watkins got an initial one-year, $3,000-a-month contract with Diggs to work as a liaison with the Hartford community.Watkins' work led to a city ethics investigation. The city and Watkins eventually signed an agreement saying he had briefly and unintentionally violated the city's ethics codes. Watkins still works for Diggs.
Because Al-Ghani and Willingham were state appointees to the school building committee, they appear to be bound by state — not city — ethics codes. The state Office of Ethics had no record of investigations into Al-Ghani and Willingham.
Al-Ghani, though, was familiar with state ethics procedures and had sought advice from the state ethics office previously. In 2001, Al-Ghani asked ethics officials in a letter, "how long … do I need to wait before I can legally seek business from the Hartford school system?"
State ethics regulations include a one-year revolving-door prohibition in such situations.
All three hirings concern at least one city councilman.
"It raises serious questions," said Councilman Kenneth Kennedy. "It just raises the appearance of impropriety, even if one doesn't exist. That's the question it raises. And we always have to make sure that everything's on the up and up."
Dale Diggs, the company's president, said there is nothing improper about the relationships, and Mayor Eddie A. Perez said he doesn't know of a conflict in the work Al-Ghani and Willingham did for the company.
"If somebody has been in public life and they end up working for somebody five or six years later, it's tough to try to search for a conflict of interest over that period," Perez said. "I assume they knew what the state ethics code was and I assume they didn't see any violation of it."
"This was three or four years later," said Willingham, who was the school building committee's vice chairman. "I had no ties to the company; I didn't know [Diggs] before he came to town; and I saw it as an opportunity to make a couple dollars in a bad economy. I didn't see it as a conflict."
Al-Ghani — a Republican who is a city representative on the Metropolitan District Commission — declined to comment through his attorney, Bart Halloran.
The reconstruction of Hartford schools has caught the attention of a state grand jury investigating allegations of corruption at city hall, though the scope of the interest remains unclear.
Dale Diggs said he hasn't been before the grand jury and hasn't spoken to investigators. His attorney says she has been assured he is not a target of the investigation.
But investigators have asked the city for records of payments to Diggs Construction and to one of its construction managers, according to records obtained from the city treasurer's office by The Courant. Diggs has declined to release documents to The Courant that the firm turned over to the state's investigators, because, the company said, they were the subject of the grand jury's investigation.
At least two people familiar with the investigation said the grand jury has asked questions about who has been hired to work on the schools project and why.
The selection of Diggs came at a volatile time in Hartford politics.
The city had just elected Perez, its first Latino mayor, whose earliest moves included a very public breakup with four of the six newly elected Democratic members of the city council over the selection of an interim city manager.
Instead of going with the council's Democratic team, led by Watkins, Perez — himself a Democrat — sided with a multiparty coalition to form a new council majority. Veronica Airey-Wilson, a Republican popular in the city's West Indian community, would become deputy mayor, replacing Watkins, who was left on the sidelines.
It was a risky move that had the potential to alienate supporters in the city's African American community.
Just two weeks later, Perez was part of another decision — to choose Diggs. After months of political lobbying and petitioning, the city's African American political leaders were squarely behind Diggs. They hoped the minority-owned firm would be sympathetic to their concerns, train city residents and put them to work.
"Here's an African American contractor who understands our plight," former city Councilman Steve Harris said in a recent interview. "You're coming into our city, building schools on my taxpayer dime. At the very least, you should be hiring some of the very folks from the city to work on the projects."
According to minutes of a Dec. 17, 2001, meeting of the selection committee, a school board staff member prioritized his top three choices for the selection committee — Diggs, the Downes Group and Collaborative Riverso, in that order.
The building committee of state and city appointees — Willingham, Al-Ghani and former state Rep. Felix Karsky from the state; Watkins, Perez and Airey-Wilson from the city — accepted the recommendation and unanimously picked Diggs Construction to oversee the remaking of the city's schools.
The entire project is expected to cost roughly $1 billion. Dale Diggs estimates that the city has paid his firm a gross total — before expenses — of between $18 million and $19 million.
In an interview, Willingham said all of the companies were qualified to do the work.
"But part of the mission, as I saw it, was that we were trying everything we could to get minority representation, based on the school system," Willingham said. Dale Diggs is African American. "That was one of the elements that Diggs brought to the table."
"I kind of went with Diggs' company because it was a company that was minority owned, and I thought it was time for that in Hartford," Willingham said.
Watkins said there was no link between his selection of Diggs and his eventual employment.
"I certainly never hired Diggs so I could get a job when I left office," he said. "But I don't think I'm the only person in the city of Hartford or the state of Connecticut who has worked for a company … they may have voted for."
Perez said he came to the process once the list of interested contractors had been winnowed from roughly a dozen down to three and that he was involved only in the final selection process.
In January 2005, Dale Diggs signed another contract in Hartford.
He hired Al-Ghani in a deal that could, eventually, make Al-Ghani $688,103. He was the third person hired to work with and mentor minority- and women-owned businesses, monitor contract compliance and mediate problems between minority contractors and big construction managers. In a letter in response to questions from The Courant, Dale Diggs said he chose Al-Ghani's company "because it possessed the necessary qualifications at the best value."
Diggs said that "minority oversight has been, and continues to be, a component of Diggs contract with Hartford and not a 'made-up' position.'"
According to a resume he provided to Diggs Construction, Al-Ghani, 68, got master's degrees in business and community and economic development from the University of Southern New Hampshire in 1998. Before that, he said, he owned what appear to be two companies — one in financial services, the other a development company — for more than two decades. He filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 1992.
In 1999, Al-Ghani began CILIC Urban Consultants — the company that later contracted with Diggs. He also started a construction company and a third company called DL Collins Trading.
In paperwork filed with the state, Al-Ghani said his company worked in 2000 on a contract for SINA — the Southside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance. His job was to study the effect of the Learning Corridor development — which Perez spearheaded when he led SINA, before he was mayor. Al-Ghani also did consulting work with the North End community group ONE/CHANE, the paperwork shows.
Al-Ghani also has demonstrated some political support for Perez as a strong voice for charter reform and a supporter of Perez's decision to name himself to the city's board of education.
"I tried to hire some other people to try to do the same job and they couldn't get the job done," Diggs said. "I was tired of paying people for not helping us get the job done."
In 2006, a year after Al-Ghani was hired, both Watkins and Willingham got jobs from Dale Diggs.
Diggs wanted Willingham's help in identifying potential construction projects across the country for the company to seek out, both men said. Though not a developer, Willingham said he was able to use his contacts from the Urban League and his fraternity — Kappa Alpha Psi, of which Diggs was also a member — to help Diggs land a job building a $20 million parking lot in Texas.
Watkins was hired to help soothe relations with the community and help deal with complaints from minority contractors and construction workers. Minority contractors had been complaining that they were getting paid late, or not at all, and blamed Diggs. Diggs said his decision to give work to Watkins, Willingham and Al-Ghani had nothing to do with their being on the committee that had chosen his company to work in Hartford.
"Lou wasn't our first choice," Diggs said, saying he had hired an ad agency and others in the community before Watkins. But what made Watkins attractive, Diggs said, was precisely the fact that he was connected. "He's a former city councilman; he's in the community; he's well thought of; so it makes sense for us."
And, Diggs said, "Since we hired [Al-Ghani] in 2005, our whole deal with minority contractors has been so great, and we don't have all the issues with these contractors we had prior." In monthly reports Al-Ghani provided to Diggs, he documents various meetings with city contractors working on the schools and appears to chronicle any payment concerns they had.
"Anwar has done a good job I'm sure," said Perez. "Anwar is a very productive individual, works hard at what he does, and he's getting paid for a job that he's doing."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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