State Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos (D-Seattle) has introduced a bill that would get tough on people who defraud a government program meant to help small businesses get work on state highway projects.
The legislation was prompted by a 2012 KING 5 series that found serious problems at the state agency charged with rooting out fraud in the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) program, which guarantees a certain percentage of highway contracts will benefit businesses owned by women or minorities.
“Your stories pointed out it’s easy to game the system, but people who are playing by the rules are the ones getting hurt,” said Santos.
In its “Fraud on the Job” series, KING 5 showed that the Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises (OMWBE) ignored signs of abuse, such as minority-owned companies obtaining government contracts only to pass on the work to larger companies.
Santos’ proposal (see below) would create a designated fraud unit within OMWBE and outlines possible sanctions for those caught gaming the system. Those include financial penalties, debarment from government contract work, and decertification from the program.
“I want to create stronger regulatory oversight and give stronger tools to the regulators to fulfill the mission of OMWBE to create economic opportunities for everyone,” Santos said.
“Having (KING’s) investigative reports on the web and on TV raised the visibility and the seriousness of this issue,” said Santos. “For many years it’s been a passion of mine to create a level playing field so that economic opportunities are available to anyone.”
The minority contracting program overseen by OMWBE is mandatory for states that receive federal highway funds.
Santos' bill is scheduled to be reviewed by the House Committee on Technology & Economic Development on Feb. 13 at 8:00 a.m. (House Hearing Room C, John L. O'Brien Building).