Earlier this month, we broke the news that the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) had a $520,000 contract with the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, a group that got caught up in the Seattle Public Schools scandal for taking money for services they never actually provided.

We were curious to see if the Urban League---vocal fans of WSDOT's deep-bore tunnel project---was providing similarly questionable services to the state.

In response to a public disclosure request, WSDOT revealed that it has contracted out support for disadvantaged and minority businesses through the Regional Small Business Development Program (RSBDP), the Seattle Public Schools division headed up by program manager Silas Potter, the man in charge of the SPS program at the center of the $1.8 million scandal, as first reported by the Seattle Times.

According to quarterly and annual reports on WSDOT’s Support Services for Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (DBEs), Potter's RSBDP offered business competitiveness courses to companies with the goal of helping them bid more successfully for WSDOT contracts.

The low level of DBE attendance and the lack of any growth in enrollment at RSBDP classes suggests a similar pattern to that described in the state auditors report on the SPS program.

During the 2010-2011 fiscal year, WSDOT reported that  six DBEs completed 35 classes. The bulk of those courses took place almost entirely during a single three-month period by five of the six DBEs. During the rest of the year, only one DBE completed courses. For the first and fourth fiscal quarters of 2010, no DBEs were listed as attending SPS courses.

One of WSDOT’s reports cites the “schedules of employees” at SPS as the reason so few classes were taught during the fourth quarter of 2010. Incidentally, this was also the period of time when SPS was winding down funding for the Regional Small Business Development program.

WSDOT also reported that only six DBEs attended classes, but in the annual report noted that “SPS is in the process of compiling data” on DBE attendance.

Money well spent? PubliCola has filed another public disclosure request to find out.

A state auditor’s report on the SPS scandal, first reported by the Seattle Times, revealed that the RSBDP classes were actually attended by the same vendor who was billed as teaching those very courses. The vendors teaching the classes also overbilled for the amount of time spent teaching courses, which often had only a few students.

We have a call out to Brenda Nnambi, director of WSDOT’s Office of Equal Opportunity, to ask about the state's contract with SPS, including how much WSDOT spent.

An odd footnote: While Nnambi told us for our original story that WSDOT was happy with the Urban League's work because the "program has provided assistance to a number of businesses that have gotten WSDOT contracts," a look through email correspondence between WSDOT and the Urban League found that WSDOT contacted the Urban League  and requested a list of the DBEs served through the Urban League’s Pathways Program one day after our story ran.

The Urban League's Pathways program, the subject of our initial inquiry and public records request, provides technical and consulting services to minority businesses seeking WSDOT contracts. We'll have a report on that contract is coming soon.
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