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Friday, May 1, 2009

Black Contractors File Bias Suit Against Toyota

Los Angeles Sentinel, News Report, Denise Stewart, Posted: Apr 27, 2009

Fish & Fisher, a black-owned general contractor in Jackson, Mississippi, hauled more than 1 million cubic tons of dirt to make way for a new Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., and also helped expand the Jackson-Evers International Airport.

But when it came time to hand out the big contracts for construction of a new Toyota plant in Blue Springs, Mississippi in 2007, Fish & Fisher says it was left out of the process.

Fish & Fisher has filed a federal lawsuit in Mississippi, claiming racial discrimination in the bid process for the Toyota plant. The company is seeking unspecified damages in the suit that also names as defendants Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and the Mississippi Development Authority.

The company got a $6 million chunk of the site preparation work as a subcontractor while the general contractor for the job, L&T Construction, got a total of $49 million. That company originally partnered with another contractor to win the bid, but that partnership later dissolved, according to the court filing.

Owners of Fish & Fisher say minority-owned companies were excluded from the process.

“If we had had an opportunity, we absolutely would have bid on the project, but we weren’t given that opportunity,” Fish & Fisher co-owner Jacqueline Williams told BlackAmericaweb.com. “They invited only five companies to bid. At a time when the state gave $300 million in incentives to bring the plant to Mississippi, they still only allowed certain insiders to bid.”

Toyota calls the claims in the lawsuit “baseless” and said it will “vigorously defend this case.”

Company spokeswoman Barbara McDaniel told BlackAmericaweb.com that the pool of bidders on the job was limited because of the size and scope of the project.

To bid as general contractor, a company must have annual sales four times above the value of the Toyota project, McDaniel said.

Williams said Fish & Fisher met the requirements for minority company participation with Toyota because it is certified by the National Minority Supplier Development Council.

Byron Perkins, a Birmingham, Alabama lawyer representing Fish & Fisher, said the exclusion of that company from the bid process is something that happens all too often to black-owned businesses.

“This practice is still rampant, and it’s time for it to stop,” Perkins told BlackAmericaweb.com.

Toyota defends its record with minority business.

"To date, more than $40 million has been spent with minority contractors for the Toyota Mississippi project, which actually exceeds our goal of 15 percent spending with minority contractors,” McDaniel said. “Toyota’s track record nationally, as well as in Mississippi for awarding business to MBEs (minority business enterprises), speaks for itself.”

McDaniel said Toyota is one of only 14 companies in the United States to be a member of the Billion Dollar Roundtable, a designation given to companies who spend at least $1 billion annually with diverse suppliers and demonstrate a strong overall commitment to supplier diversity.

Since the project was announced, the Toyota plant in Blue Springs, near Tupelo in northeast Mississippi, was anticipated as a boost for the state’s sagging economy.

Industry reports say the plant was originally projected to hire 2,000 people to make 150,000 Toyota Highlander SUVs annually. The total cost of the project was expected to top $1 billion.

Last year, plans for the plant changed, and the company decided to produce the Prius at the new Mississippi plant. The slow economy has since placed those plans on hold, company officials say.
The main building for the plant has been completed, but it has not been equipped for production, McDaniel said. About 100 people currently work there in administrative offices, she said.

Williams, who co-owns Fish & Fisher partner Renna Fisher, said minority-owned companies continue to get only small portions of contracts and are prevented by an age-old system from being named general contractors on major projects in Mississippi.

The lawsuit claims there was a conspiracy to exclude minority-owned companies by having a private bidding process, depriving Fish & Fisher of their constitutional right to equal access.

Perkins, the lawyer, said they also believe Toyota erred by allowing Hernando-based L&T to keep the contract after a partnership it formed with another white-owned business dissolved shortly after the companies won the contract. The suit claims L&T didn't meet the guidelines set out for the project by Toyota and that the company was not bonded.

Perkins said argues Fish & Fisher would have had no such problems.

"This isn't a fly-by-night company," he said.

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