When it comes to dealing with the city government and Denver International Airport, businessman King Harris has always had a Midas touch.
A company Harris controls has been given almost $20 million worth of work at DIA under a single inspection contract over the past few years. It's reaped millions more as a subcontractor to two other airport inspection firms. Another Harris corporation got picked to operate several potentially lucrative DIA gift shops and newsstands.
Now, despite the reservations of some members of the Denver City Council, the politically connected Harris has won $2 million more in DIA business--including work on the airport's baggage-handling system.
"King Harris has gotten repeated contracts under very controversial situations," says city councilman Ted Hackworth. "It doesn't make sense. Why on earth are we doing this? It's just an extra gimme."
Other members of the council disagree; they say Harris is being singled out for criticism only because he is black. Councilwoman Happy Haynes, who is black, calls questions about Harris "extremely disturbing" and denies he wields an unfair advantage when competing against other companies for city business.
"Everyone plays by the same rules," Haynes says.
"This company seems to be the only one that attracts the attention of some councilmembers," says Councilman Hiawatha Davis Jr., who also is black. "I've never heard those [concerns] raised with majority-owned companies."
Harris did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Three separate Harris contracts are now under consideration. All involve Construction Management & Technical Services (CMTS), Harris's northeast Denver firm.
The first is an amendment to the existing $20 million construction-inspection contract, which was awarded to CMTS back in 1989 for work at both Stapleton International Airport and DIA. Under that agreement, CMTS became one of a handful of companies doing quality-control work at the new airport, testing construction materials and looking over the shoulders of workers who were laying runways and putting up buildings.
The initial contract amount was for $4.5 million, but it has been increased six times. The proposed amendment--which is supposed to be the last--is for $690,000 and would pay for work CMTS does at DIA through July 31.
The second contract, for $710,000, would pay for CMTS services at DIA from August 1 onward. The company would have several duties under that agreement, according to airport officials, including "closing out" a host of DIA construction contracts and checking progress on the airport's errant baggage system--which has been responsible for indefinitely postponing DIA's opening. CMTS will have about 85 workers out at the airport through September under the contract, says DIA spokesman Steve Klodt. After that, the number of employees should drop to about 25, he adds.
The third and final contract is worth $495,000 and is for "environmental services" at Stapleton and DIA. Myles Carter, the city's manager of environmental services at DIA, says the bulk of the money will go to pay for CMTS employees who help collect and dispose of de-icing fluids sprayed on airplanes during winter months in Denver. (CMTS has been performing that service at Stapleton for the past several years under the $20 million DIA inspection contract, Carter says, but the city has decided to "break out" the work and pay for it under a new, separate agreement.)
A smaller portion of the environmental services contract will pay CMTS to develop a "pollution-prevention program" at the new airport, Carter says. The program is supposed to establish procedures to help prevent airlines from contaminating nearby waterways with chemicals they use at DIA.
"In any case where they're messing with pollutants, we want [the airlines] to have a plan to keep that stuff out of the streams," Carter says.
CMTS will help the city get the program "up and running," Carter says. After a year or so, city employees will take over.
Last week, in an 11-2 vote, the city council tentatively approved awarding both the $690,000 amendment and the new $710,000 inspection contract to CMTS. Hackworth and Councilwoman Mary DeGroot were opposed. The items were formally approved Monday night.
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Because it involves less than $500,000, the $495,000 environmental services contract does not require the council's approval. It is "very close to being awarded," DIA's Carter says.
Harris has been a controversial figure in Denver since 1987, when the Denver Post published a lengthy investigative report on the city's use of minority contracting firms. A Harris company called California Park Construction, the paper said, had been awarded an inspection contract at Stapleton worth $3.5 million even though it didn't submit the lowest bid for the project. City officials, furthermore, allowed Harris to transfer the contract from California Park to CMTS even though the former faced more than $125,000 in federal tax liens.
Harris enjoys close political ties to Denver mayor Wellington Webb. He has been contributing to Webb's election funds since 1988 and is a former business partner of city attorney and Webb appointee Dan Muse.
Earlier this year ("Pour Relations," April 13), Westword reported that CMTS was being paid $420,000 by Denver's Regional Transportation District to inspect work on the RTD's new light-rail system--even though parts of it had been built by a company controlled by Harris's own nephew.