By Chinta Strausberg
In business since 2003, Harold J. Davis, Jr., president of Amer-I-Can Enterprises II, who had a $12 million contract with Aramark Correctional Services, Inc. which is one of the nation’s largest food service providers to jails and prisons, is still fighting to get his money but is running into brick walls after he blew the whistle on the owner he alleges tried to make him into a front company.
Davis recently appeared before the WE CAN, INC. Committee, chaired by Florence Cox , seeking help in getting justice. Cox said, “According to municipal regulations, front companies are illegal. Some companies have been barred from doing business with the city when found to be operating in that manner. Front companies rob legitimate business owners of access and growth.”
WE CAN, INC. is a committee comprised of some of Chicago’s most successful black businessmen and women who are fighting to improve the quality of life in the African American community and to help nurture and gain equal access to contractual dollars.
Davis is taking his case to anyone who will listen and it’s a story of a black man seeking an equal opportunity he says was seized by a greedy white-owned corporation that ended up getting the entire contractual pie including the slices earmarked for minority firms.
Though he’s been allegedly threatened, Davis isn’t backing down on neither his goal of blowing the whistle on Aramark nor his vow not to become a black front company as he was allegedly asked to do by Aramark.
Explaining, Davis said in 2007 he had a three-year $12 million contract with the Cook County Jail where he sub-contracted with Aramark. “I had six one-year addendums which would have brought the contract to $36 million.
“I thought I would be buying commissaries,” he said. “I thought I was going to be doing food, buying paper products. There were seven entities to the contract.” He was supposed to move the product, buy the product, which included purchasing food and black hair products.
“I was only supposed to get one entity of the contract. They gave me all seven of them. They told me, ‘we like you so much, we are going to give you all seven.’”
“No,” Davis told Aramark officials. “They didn’t want to have to cut seven checks. They figured if they gave it all to me (they would have one check where he would take his portion and send the bulk of the check to someone else). “I refused to do it,” Davis said.
Davis visited the Aramark distribution site located at 518 Hankes Ave., in Aurora. However, he said, “this site was substandard as a warehouse and perishable items were leaking through boxes. Many were opened and obviously in violation….”
Davis said Aramark officials asked if he knew of a better site. “They told me to go and find a warehouse. I found a warehouse (at 11444 S. Halsted), and they gave me the specs and said to me ‘this is what we mean how the warehouse should look like.’ They said they needed a tractor trailer to move the items to the jail which was another $35,000.”
Davis said he secured the site and paid for land use specialist and architects to prepare plans for the new location. He also constructed new walls and ceilings with doors to improve the layout. “Aramark broke through the wall to access additional space without permission and still didn’t pay for additional space.”
Davis secured the additional space for Aramark at a rate of $1,500 a month “Aramark has not paid one dollar towards this extra space in 11-months,” Davis said explaining initially he subleased the site to Aramark for $4,150.00 per month.
Davis said Aramark officials asked him to hold job fairs and told him they would have 120 people at the warehouse. “We did three or four job fairs,” he said explaining that local elected officials were also present.
“Aramark promised to bring at least ten jobs to the community and even visited the alderman to solicit help and names of qualified applicants,” said Davis. “When the names of applicants were ready, the jobs were gone.”
“Once we got everything in the warehouse and the day they sent a check to me for $75,000, everything was in the warehouse,” said Davis. “They said they would supply the warehouse with all the stuff that I need…T-shirts, gym shoes, all the commissaries…everything.
“They told me they would finance me the first go round and after that’s it’s on me. We had the warehouse full. It was packed, and then I got this call from this guy, Scott Gleason, owner of Maxima Company in Lansing, Michigan, and he said, ‘You owe me….”
Davis said Aramark officials explained it was a “computer glitch” and that the check should have come to him three-days before Scott Gleason called Davis demanding his check. “The check came to me the day they said Gleason was supposed to have it.” Davis said Gleason “was the actual buyer of the Frito-Lay products, not me.
“They made it looked like the products came from me, but the stuff didn’t come from me. It came from him,” said Davis referring to Gleason. “They were going to add five percent to the check that they sent me.” Davis said that was supposed to be his cut from that $75,000 check.
“ I was only supposed to send him $72,000 and they said the $3500 was mine. That is how the $17,400 a month I was supposed to get for three-years would have from by the products they ordered. They were going to increase it the next three-years to $25,000 and the next three-years they would have increased it to $30,000,” explained Davis.
“I say no. I’m not going to jail for none of y’all,” Davis told Aramark officials. “Ya’ll want me to commit some crime. I didn’t order this. How come I couldn’t have gotten on the phone with Frito-Lay and negotiated my own price? I could have done the same thing he (Gleason) did,” Davis told Aramark officials. “They told me, ‘That’s not how it’s set up.’”
“That guy (Gleason) was doing business for 45 jails. He had an office and a phone. That’s all he had. Out of 45 jails, he was doing upwards of $240 million a year with Aramark and all he had was an office, a phone, a fax machine and a desk.”
“They figured that my part for my ordering the products that would have been $4 million a year…my part would have been $200,000,” explained Davis who again said he was not going to jail for anyone.
According to Davis, the Health Department shut down Aramark operations allegedly for health-related violations. Davis assisted Aramark in correcting those violations and spent money reconfiguring the warehouse to code. Ultimately, Aramark vacated the site in violation of the lease leaving the exterior “in gross disarray and the interior unclean and unsecured.”
The city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation threatened to ticket daily if the site had not been brought into immediate compliance. Davis lost thousands of dollars trying to comply with city health rules and has never been reimbursed by Aramark, and his many questions about Aramark’s contractual money trail for various products and vendors remain unanswered.
Back on August 8, 2007, Davis and his lawyer, Lewis Myers, Jr., filed a complaint in the Circuit Court of Cook County against Aramark Correctional Services, Inc, et al that referenced a number of companies that had been indicted by the U.S. Attorneys Office.
Owners of those companies had been indicted “for illegally using minority firms to receive minority set-aside funds in violation of federal and state laws. “Unfortunately, most of the minority companies have been black,” said Myers in his complaint. “Black minority business people have been exploited for years under the minority set-aside program,” the complaint said referring to the Cook County Contract Compliance Office and the Minority Enterprise Business Program.
According to the complaint, Aramark operates a billion dollar business in Cook County and reportedly has subsidiary companies throughout the nation.
After Davis secured a contract as a minority business with Aramark to do business with the Cook County Jail, the complaint stated, “When Mr. Davis refused to allow his company to be used as a pass-through operation, Aramark abruptly canceled his contract as well as a sub-lease that had been entered into with Aramark to store and house goods for the Cook County Jail.”
A January 24, 2007 letter from the Cook County Office of Contract Compliance states that on December 12, 2006, “both Aramark and Amer-I-Can were informed that a prime contractor with Cook County could not stop utilizing or terminate an W/WBE subcontractor from a County contract without first requesting and receiving written permission from the office to do so.”
The letter stated that permission to cancel a contract of a M/WBE subcontractor couldn’t be done until the Cook County Office of Contract Compliance had launched an investigation and decided that the prime contractor “had demonstrated sufficient cause to remove an M/WBE subcontractor from a contract and substitute the firm with another M/WBE.”
In the complaint filed by Myers, he said, “This is typical of how majority white companies exploit minorities. Mr. Davis is one of the few who decided to stand up against this injustice.”
Davis believes by standing up and rejecting money by pretending to be a front firm, he can help other minority contractors “who have to fight off the evils of submitting to becoming pass-through corporations by majority white companies that do not have the interests of the black community” at heart.
Davis continues to call State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez to help him in the investigating of Aramark’s alleged role in asking him to serve as a front company and for canceling his contract after he blew the whistle on the company. However Davis has yet to make inroads on his request.
Calls placed to Alvarez’ office were not returned and neither Aramark media representatives Thomas Sueta or Megan Haney returned this writer’s calls.
Besides refusing requests allegedly by Aramark to break the law by becoming a front company, Davis feels majority white firms that pay minorities to be front companies rob legitimate African American contractors of their fair share of the contractual pie. Davis vowed to keep fighting until he has received justice and hopefully serve as a warning to white firms to stop siphoning off monies earmarked for minorities.
Chinta Strausberg is a Journalist of more than 33-years, a former political reporter and a current PCC Network talk show host. You can e-mail Strausberg at: Chintabernie@aol.com.