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Jewish World Review Dec. 7, 2000 / 11 Kislev, 5761

Jim Wooten

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Consumer Reports

Honest labor is for chumps who can't talk and politic their way to wealth -- "I AM HERE," said the minority front to the federal judge, "because I earned money and failed to report it on my income tax returns."

Fred B. Prewitt, the good and dear friend of Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell, "earned" $583,380 in money earned by the taxpayers of the city of Atlanta and appropriated by their government, for the color of his skin and the use of his political connections.

Welcome to the world of minority business preferences, where race and politics blend into the contracting equivalent of the Georgia Lottery. With essentially nothing in the game except gab, big paydays are possible for the politically connected.

The scandal playing out in federal court is evidence of the evil of a system that conveys socially destructive messages. One of those messages is that honest labor is for chumps who can't talk and politic their way to wealth.

Another is that politicians are wealth-makers, in this case seizing it a few dollars at a time from Atlanta's residents and visitors and spreading it to those the politicians favor. The sycophants who curry favor thus become agents who distribute small gifts -- the politicians designate.

It's corrupting, too, for business. Quality may count, but connections count more. Price may count, but a willingness to put empty suits on the payroll counts for more. Bill Harbert Construction Co. of Birmingham paid Prewitt $25,705 in 1995, $107,280 in 1996 and $46,100 in 1997 for "services" that amounted to a pager, cell phone, letterhead and the rental of his skin.

It has been irrefutable for some time that minority set-asides are a way to ascribe nobility to garden-variety political favoritism. Politicians such as Campbell become indignant when the program is challenged.

Their indignation is in itself a cover to fend off close scrutiny because they know that when the surface is scratched, a Fred Prewitt pops up and when the campaign finance disclosures roll around, an awful lot of favored vendors are revealed to be showering money in patterns that look awfully suspicious.

For these and other reasons, minority preference programs have come under challenge nationwide. Atlanta's program is in federal court now on suit brought by the Southeastern Legal Foundation.

The city's destined to lose. Soooo -- it is recasting the program to put the burden on the private sector. Bidders would be required to prove that they had subcontracted 34 percent of both their public and private work to minority- or female-owned firms during the previous two years -- or satisfy city officials that they had tried.

The city's effort to regulate interstate commerce through its preference program is not likely to withstand court challenge either. But it does extend the life of preferences through the time it would take to slow-walk it through court proceedings. And, the hope is that if the courts can be walked slowly enough, the political environment could change. Delay favors the offender.

There really should come come a time when courts hold public officials personally liable financially for frivolous litigation. At present, Atlanta taxpayers are footing the legal bills for delay and the payments to businesses and individuals injured by the city's preference policies.

So here's the fix taxpayers are in: They pay padded costs for goods and services to cover sham companies and payoffs. They pay the expense of litigation to defend the corrupt cost-plus programs. They pay the victims wronged by cost-plus preferences. And now they're about to pay to start the process over again.

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© Jim Wooten