Well, the proverbial shoe has dropped, and once again the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) program is in the news, with still another warning for contractors who have to comply with the DBE rules applicable to federally funded contracts.
This time, the locus is North Carolina. The crime is conspiracy, money laundering, mail fraud, and wire fraud. The companies charged are a paving contractor and the sham DBE it used.
On July 24, 2013, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of North Carolina announced charges against Boggs Paving, Inc., and some of its executives, as well as Styx Cuthbertson Trucking Company Inc., the DBE firm used by Boggs. This is from the official FBI press release:
According to allegations contained in the indictment, beginning in 2003 and through the present, Boggs Paving Inc. (“Boggs Paving”) fraudulently obtained federally and state funded construction contracts by falsely certifying that a disadvantaged business enterprise (“DBE”) or a small business enterprise (“SBE”) would perform and be paid for portion of the work on such contracts. USDOT’s DBE program provides a vehicle for increasing the participation of disadvantaged business enterprises in federally funded transportation-related projects. The indictment alleges that Styx Cuthbertson Trucking Company Inc. (“Styx”), a road construction hauler based in Monroe, North Carolina, owned by Styx Cuthbertson, was a certified DBE and SBE used by the defendants as a “pass through” entity to obtain such contracts.
To create the illusion that Styx was doing and being paid for the necessary work, the indictment alleges that, among other things, the conspirators ran payments through a nominee bank account in Styx’s name but funneled checks back to Boggs Paving and its affiliates, which were not DBEs or SBEs but were doing the actual work. The indictment further alleges that each time a deposit was made into the nominee account as supposed payment for construction work performed by Styx, a Boggs Paving employee would immediately cut a check from that Styx nominee account to the Boggs entity or another firm that had actually performed the work. In return, according to allegations contained in the indictment, Styx Cuthbertson received a kickback for allowing his name and DBE status to be used by Boggs Paving.
The seriousness of the charges can be found in the potential sentences. This is also from the official FBI press release:
The conspiracy charge carries a maximum of five years in prison. Each wire and mail fraud count carries a maximum of 20 years in prison. The money laundering conspiracy charge carries a maximum of 20 years in prison. The money laundering charge carries a maximum of 10 years in prison. Each of the charges also carries a $250,000 fine
Needless to say, this is another wake-up call for contractors working on federally funded state highway projects. Dot your i’s and cross your t’s! Look before you leap! And don’t even think about scamming the DBE program by using sham DBEs or “pass-throughs.” If the DBE can’t perform, don’t use it. If the DBE doesn’t have equipment to perform, don’t use it. If the DBE doesn’t have the financial resources to get the job done, don’t use it. If you have any doubts about the DBE, do your due diligence.
If you can’t meet the DBE goal set for the federally funded contract because you cannot find any bona fide and capable DBEs available to perform the work, document and show your good faith efforts to meet the DBE goal, and then fight like hell for the contract award if you are the low bidder but are denied the contract. Under the DBE regulations, a contractor cannot be denied the contract merely because it did not meet the DBE goal. But a contractor can be charged with a crime if it meets the goal by knowingly using sham DBEs. What’s worse? Losing the contract, but staying out of jail, or winning the contract, but going to jail? Sounds like a no brainer to me.