The battle over a lucrative asphalt deal at Chicago’s airports
CHICAGO — The goal of the City of Chicago’s minority contracting program is to create opportunities for businesses that historically have been unable to land potentially lucrative municipal work. But, as one recent dispute shows, it doesn’t always work out that way.
A decade ago, Lorenzo Harmon got a call he believed would boost the fortunes of the small trucking company, founded by his father in the late 1970s on the city’s West Side.
The administration of then Mayor Rahm Emanuel had awarded a $16.7 million contract to K-Five Construction Corp., the lowest bidder, for asphalt work at O’Hare and Midway airports. As part of the deal, K-Five pledged that 25% of the work would go to minority businesses.
Harmon’s firm was one of those businesses.
According to city records reviewed by WGN Investigates, K-Five estimated that Harmon would be paid $2.6 million, or more than 15% of the contract’s total value.
“So, it was a very important we were part of the contract,” Harmon said. “Or they couldn’t get the contract.”
In preparation for the increased workload, Harmon hired workers and invested more than $200,000 in new equipment.
“It’s (was) great time, a wonderful day,” he said.
But the feeling didn’t last. After only two years, K-Five fired Harmon.
An attorney for K-Five said the company did so because Harmon was “unable to perform to the high standards required for work at the airports.”
Harmon denies the allegation and said he was never notified of a single complaint until right before K-Five pulled the plug.
In a lawsuit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court, Harmon alleges he was punished for refusing to keep quiet as K-Five underpaid him by “approximately 50 cents on the dollar.” What’s more, he alleges K-Five continued working at the airports, its contract modified and extended by the city, despite not meeting its minority contracting goals.
An attorney for K-Five said their client “strongly denies the allegations in the complaint.”
The case is heading toward trial, though no date has been set. Just this week, a Cook County judge approved Harmon’s request to add the city of Chicago as a defendant.
A city spokesman declined to comment on the specifics of the dispute. He did say, however, that the city hasn’t yet determined if K-Five fulfilled its minority participation goals.
In all, the company was paid more than $50 million.
Its original contract, awarded in 2012, was to last three years.
It was extended by the city and expired in December 2020. The contract was then rebid and awarded to a different firm, the spokesman said.
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