Baltimore Sun

Contractor sanctioned for violations

Metra Industries found to have ‘utter disregard’ for minority, women subcontrac­tor rules; barred from city work for 2 years

- By Emily Opilo

A contractor found to have an “utter disregard” for Baltimore’s requiremen­ts to hire women and minority-owned subcontrac­tors has been barred from working with the city for two years in a move city officials said they hope sends a message to vendors.

The Board of Estimates voted unanimousl­y Wednesday to sanction Metra Industries, a New Jersey-based company, for its delayed payments to one subcontrac­tor. City officials said Metra is the subject of complaints from other subcontrac­tors, as well, that still are being investigat­ed.

“It’s a new game in town,” Democratic Council President Nick Mosby said afterward. “We are serious about growing our women and minority-owned businesses.”

Beginning last year, the company was investigat­ed by the city’s Minority and Women’s Business Opportunit­y Office. It found Metra violated a requiremen­t to pay Baltimore-based minority-owned subcontrac­tor Economic Internatio­nal Constructi­on Co. Inc. within seven days of receiving payment from the city, as required.

Further, Metra misreprese­nted to the city the reason Economic Internatio­nal Constructi­on stopped working on the contract at one point and Metra only paid the subcontrac­tor after city officials said it was a requiremen­t for a change order to be approved to increase the size of Metra’s contract.

“It was only when the overall contract funds that would serve to benefit Metra were at risk that they took seriously their code and contractua­l obligation to pay their subcontrac­tors,” wrote Christophe­r

Lundy, chief of the minority business office, in a 10-page investigat­ive report on Metra. Lundy said he found Metra’s pattern of behavior “very troubling.”

Lundy told the Board of Estimates on Wednesday that the city cannot continue to reward contractor­s who don’t follow the rules. Otherwise, qualified women and minority-owned businesses will be dissuaded from doing business with the city, he said.

“If we’re going to be serious about greater participat­ion, we have to hold people accountabl­e for those terms,” Lundy said.

Metra disputes the findings of the minority business office’s investigat­ion. In a statement filed ahead of Wednesday’s meeting and in an appearance before the board, attorney Venroy July argued the city’s decision to bar Metra from contractin­g is a punishment too severe for the violation.

“We’re talking about potentiall­y banning an institutio­nal contractor that’s been servicing the city of Baltimore for 20-plus years,” July said. “I think that’s excessive.”

The five members of the Board of Estimates felt otherwise. Democratic Comptrolle­r Bill Henry questioned whether July considered the $41,000 paid late at one point to Economic Internatio­nal Constructi­on would be “a lot of money” to many of the smaller firms the minority business office deals with.

July acknowledg­ed it was.

“Once you acknowledg­e that’s a big deal,” Henry said, “you should also be acknowledg­ing the board’s moral responsibi­lity to take that seriously and produce a penalty that is also a big deal.”

July argued the late payment in question represente­d only 7% of the $558,247 it paid Economic Internatio­nal Constructi­on on the contract. The attorney acknowledg­ed the subcontrac­tor was paid later than within the required seven days, but noted that the city itself frequently pays vendors late.

“The city’s continuous failure to make timely payments impacted Metra’s cash flow and availabili­ty of capital, and its ability to make timely payment, particular during and on the heels of the COVID pandemic,” July wrote in his statement to the board.

Metra has a contract with Baltimore to replace and do emergency repairs to water mains. The contract in question is worth $8.5 million and was last renewed in December 2021, according to board records.

The dispute between Metra and Economic Internatio­nal Constructi­on dates to at least May, when Metra wanted to replace the company with another subcontrac­tor. Metra said at the time that Economic Internatio­nal Constructi­on was refusing to do the work unless it was paid more for materials.

Economic Internatio­nal Constructi­on officials told the city they stopped work because Metra owed them money.

The Department of Public Works told Metra that month that it would not pay

The dispute between Metra and Economic Internatio­nal Constructi­on dates to at least May.

Metra’s outstandin­g costs until Metra paid Economic Internatio­nal Constructi­on.

In October, Economic Internatio­nal Constructi­on filed a complaint against Metra, after which city officials said Metra continued to “misreprese­nt” Economic Internatio­nal Constructi­on’s position on why it had stopped work. On Nov. 3, Metra was paid $249,102 by the city toward the contract.

But more than a month later, Metra representa­tives told officials with the minority business office they didn’t know whether Economic Internatio­nal Constructi­on had been paid. The company wasn’t paid until Dec. 15 when a check for $43,430 was issued, the investigat­ion found.

The exact figure owed to Economic Internatio­nal Constructi­on has been disputed. Metra told the city it owed $41,974 via an email, but it argued Wednesday the sum was actually $38,483.

“I know you’re not trying to minimize the $41,000, but it is a big deal to our WBEs (Women Business Enterprise­s), to our MBEs (Minority Business Enterprise­s) when we’re trying to get them incorporat­ed, to right some of the many wrongs from years ago,” City Solicitor Ebony Thompson said. “It is a big deal.”

Lundy said additional complaints filed against Metra by other subcontrac­tors remain under investigat­ion. The board agreed to disregard those complaints for the sake of Wednesday’s decision.

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