Feds: Michigan should pay contractor $12M - KMSP-TV

Michigan taxpayers may be on the hook for $12M after contractor accuses state of ruining her business

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By M.L. Elrick
Fox 2 News Investigative Reporter

DETROIT (WJBK) -- For years, Michigan governors have been trying to figure out how to hold onto the state's best and brightest and reverse the brain drain.  So how is it that state officials are being accused of driving a trailblazing Ph.D. out of business and right out of Michigan?

Bellandra Foster says she had a pretty good thing going helping to fix Michigan's roads until two state transportation officials decided to fix her.  For good.

Foster is leaving, but not by choice.

"It sadden me.  It angered me.  It frustrated me," she said.

By many measures, Foster is exceptional.  She is a black female engineer in a field dominated by white men.  And while others were fleeing Michigan's economic meltdown, she started a business in Detroit and she succeeded.

In 2008, she had 14 employees.  The Michigan Department of Transportation even named her firm Disadvantaged Business Enterprise of the Year.  It was the first time they handed out that award.

"I was growing, doing well.  It was often said that BBF Engineering Services had the best people," Foster said.

But here's where our success story hits a pothole.  Just as Michigan's economy began to improve, Foster's work for MDOT began drying up, but she couldn't figure it out at first.

"I had people working for me, I had people that needed jobs, so I kept bidding on work.  That's what I did, I kept bidding on work," she said.

But Foster did more than that.  She started asking questions just like you would if some bureaucrat said that you had to give up half of a $4 million contract you had won.

"I said, 'How come every time my company gets a contract, the cuts are always on the backs of my company?'  He said, 'Well, I don't know anything about that.'"

Soon federal investigators started asking questions, too, and they didn't like the answers they found.

The feds say when Mark Steucher worked for the Michigan Department of Transportation, he changed Foster's bid evaluation to ace her out of a state contract.  A federal investigator's report said Foster had the top score, but Steucher said, "oh no, I hate her" and changed it, robbing her at a shot of a $3 million deal.

That's a pretty heavy charge, one we thought Steucher might want to address.  He didn't return my messages, so I tracked him down.  When I attempted to speak with him, he peeled out of the parking lot in a dark-colored Ford SUV.

Steucher didn't want to answer our questions, but I can't help wonder what he's going to tell his boss about why he bailed out on work that day.

But Foster and the feds say Steucher wasn't her only problem.  Victor Judnic is a tidy gent who may have a little problem with the ladies.  A federal investigator's report said Judnic's secretary confirmed that he said, "No woman should be making money like that."

Foster says Judnic told her he was cutting her contract to help other small firms.  But in the end, $2 million went to Fishbeck, a Grand Rapids firm with 320 employees.

Now do the math people.  Bellandra Foster has 14 employees.  Fishbeck has 320.  Who's the small firm here?

What did Foster think when she saw that?

"Very disappointing.  Other than the outrage, it's very disappointing that this was allowed."

Foster is suing the state, so you know they're not going to talk.  We thought we'd give Judnic a try.  He didn't return my calls and he didn't have much more to say when we finally met in person.

"I wanted to see if we could talk to you about Bellandra Foster," I said to Judnic.

"It's inappropriate to talk about these matters that are pending litigation," he answered.

"We're trying to give you an opportunity to give your side.  These documents show that the feds believe that you may have discriminated against her saying that you didn't think women should make that much money.  Is there any truth to that?"

Judnic failed to respond.

Foster says the situation not only ruined her business, it almost ruined her health.

"I went from a person who was on medications now on medications.  It's very stressful," she said.

But this isn't just a problem for Foster.  It's a problem for you.  The feds have recommended that the state settle the case for $12 million.  That's roughly how much it would cost to completely reconstruct four miles of bad road.  Luckily there are no bad roads in Michigan, right?

In the meantime, Foster has packed up her office and her belongings.  She is leaving her husband in Michigan hoping for a new start in a new state.

Foster says more than money is at stake in this case.  She says she watched other small contractors who faced similar dilemmas quietly give up and move on, but she says her parents taught her an important lesson.  When you see injustice, you must speak out.

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