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Company gets $250 million in city contracts to replace aging water mains

Updated: March 21, 2013 6:34AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration has awarded three water-main construction contracts totaling $250 million to a company once certified as minority-owned at a time when its African-American president had acknowledged his white business partner ran the company’s day-to-day operations.

The three contracts — for $85.3 million, $83.4 million and $80.8 million — were all awarded to Benchmark Construction in recent weeks.

That makes Benchmark the largest beneficiary to date of Emanuel’s plan to double water and sewer fees over four years to replace Chicago’s crumbling water mains, 900 miles of them a century old.

Nine years ago, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Benchmark Construction got more than $25 million in city contracts earmarked for minorities, even though then-company president Michael Smith, who is African-American, had acknowledged in a court deposition that a white partner oversaw operations.

In the same document, Smith appeared confused about the meaning of the term “below-grade,” though the company does underground construction.

At the time, Smith was listed as the president of Benchmark. But then-Mayor Richard M. Daley accepted a campaign contribution from Benchmark and listed the company’s president as Michael Vondra, a construction and asphalt magnate who is white.

Then-chief procurement officer Eric Griggs said he had determined that Smith was the “majority owner” of Benchmark, with 70 employees under his control.

Smith is no longer president of Benchmark. He was replaced in 2008 by a longtime company employee who is white. Benchmark has made more than $143,000 in political contributions in recent years, a healthy chunk of that money to a handful of powerful Chicago aldermen.

In an email to the Chicago Sun-Times, mayoral spokeswoman Kathleen Strand said the Emanuel administration carved the water main contracts into six districts to maximize the number of contractors.

But when the bids were opened on Dec. 6, Benchmark was the “lowest responsive and responsible bidder” in three of the six districts. “The City of Chicago is legally required to award all competitively bid contracting opportunities to the lowest responsive and responsible bidder,” she wrote.

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