Tar Heel Tattler - December 2005

Black and white issue colors project
By Frank Maley

The office manager had come back from lunch, so the visitor got up and closed the door. What Sam Helms had to say was private, but Tommy Vaughan wouldn’t keep it that way. He claims Helms offered to pay his Ahoskie company not to work on a $94 million prison project near Tabor City.

Dallas-based Centex Corp. is building the prison. Helms works for Jacksonville, Fla.-based Eagerton Plumbing Co., a subcontractor. Vaughan Repair Service Inc., among other things, sells plumbing supplies. But Helms didn’t want it to supply materials, Vaughan says, just shuffle paperwork — bogus purchase orders and invoices — as if it were. In return, it would get 5% of the $250,000 value of the contracts for the supplies. The reason: Because Vaughan is black, his company would help Centex meet a goal set by the state for participation by minority-owned businesses.

Vaughan says Metairie, La.-based MCC Mechanical LLC, another prison contractor, offered a similar deal, promising 2% of a $280,000 contract. The state is investigating his claims. Site work for the prison has begun; construction will begin next year and wrap up in 2008.

Helms didn’t return phone calls seeking comment. In a statement, MCC denied Vaughan’s allegations, saying it had proposed a 2% markup on materials — which it says is the industry standard — but that Vaughan wanted 15%.

Steve Holt, a Centex executive vice president, says Centex investigated Vaughan’s complaints but couldn’t substantiate them. In a letter to subcontractors, he says they shouldn’t pay companies that don’t add value to the project or the minority-contractor program.

About that much, Centex and Vaughan seem to agree. Vaughan says he doesn’t like phony deals to help contractors meet goals. “To me, it’s like trying to buy me off, just running this stuff through my business. I’m not going to have it.”