Hiring and Firing

With something like a half-billion dollars for construction of the Pepsi Center and the new Broncos stadium about to pour into Denver, questions about who will do the work are bubbling to the surface. And one of the biggest questions concerns the percentage of minority and women contractors--as evidenced by Broncos owner Pat Bowlen's last-minute written promise to the state legislature on the last day of the 1996 session that he would stress minority hiring.

Even though voters have yet to approve the idea of financing a new Broncos stadium, the competition over which contractors would get to work on such a big project is hot--and has already claimed one casualty.

Bill Bell, a consultant who helps contractors meet minority hiring goals, was recently dumped by the M.A. Mortenson Company, the firm that built Coors Field and has already struck a deal with Ascent Entertainment to build the Pepsi Center. The center's price tag is now estimated at $160 million but is likely to grow to $200 million.

Part of the deal that Ascent reached with the city was that Mortenson would use certain percentages of women- and minority-owned businesses. The city agreed to the deal in part because of Mortenson's pledge to work with minorities, and city officials say that having Bill Bell consulting would go a long way toward reaching that goal.

"I'm surprised that Mortenson would change somebody that they presented at the beginning of the process as being part of the team," says Wayne Cauthen, the coordinator of minority programs for the city.

But nobody was more surprised than Bell. "I was shocked," he says.
He and Mortenson officials agree on the reason he was fired: Bell signed up with another contractor--PCL Construction Services--to help assemble a bid on a new Broncos stadium, a potential project now set at $225 million but which could easily grow to $300 million.

What Bell and Mortenson disagree on is whether that was a legitimate issue over which to fire Bell.

Bell, who trains former gang members to become successful employees, says he is reminded of gang culture.

"The way they work is, if you are running with our gang, then you can't be running with somebody else's gang. If you are red, you can't be seen with the blue," Bell says. "It's the same way with some of these contractors."

Dean Nelson, a vice president for Mortenson, says this is not a gang culture, this is business--although he adds that he was "hurt" that Bell would work with a competitor after a successful business relationship. "We got slapped in the face," Nelson says. "In our judgment, Bill has created a serious conflict of interest."

Bell can't quite figure that last part out, because big contractors on different projects often use the same subcontractors. Whether a subcontractor provides steel or consulting services shouldn't really matter, he says.

Cauthen says it seems odd to him, too. "Normally, a consultant will deal with different companies on different projects, and the contractors don't restrict a consultant," he notes, although he adds that as a private company, Mortenson can do whatever it wants to.

But others feel that Mortenson may not do as good a job of complying with minority-hiring guidelines without Bell around. "I think Bill is pretty forceful," says Veronica LeDoux, a Hispanic woman who owns a construction-supply company. "I think the chances of [Mortenson] complying go way down without him there."

She notes that the Pepsi Center is a private deal between Ascent and Mortenson and as such will not be subject to the same scrutiny when it comes to participation by women and minorities as public jobs like Coors Field or the proposed Broncos stadium. "I just have the feeling that Mortenson is not as committed to these goals as Bill Bell is," LeDoux says.

The man who hired Bell to work on a Broncos bid, Al Troppmann of PCL, is no disinterested observer, but he says he doesn't understand the conflict argument either. After all, he says, he was willing to have somebody work for him who was also working for a competitor. He says Bell is a professional and that the Denver construction community is small enough that any violations of confidences get around.

Bell and Mortenson officials do agree that they've had a great track record together, winning a national award from the federal Small Business Administration for having a high percentage of women and minorities work on Coors Field. Bell was hired as an employee to help the giant contractor fulfill the governmental hiring goals on that project, which was notable for its lack of racial complaints.

Bell tells story after story that illustrates his behind-the-scenes successes. For instance, when he was at the Coors Field construction site, he found racial and sexist epithets written on the walls of the portable toilets used by the workers.

"I went and talked to [the management], and they got those things out of there the next day, plus they wrote a letter saying anyone caught writing something in those would be fired," Bell says. "And they stayed clean for the rest of the job."

He says he did a lot of little things like that, helping the majority understand how to make a better environment for the minority, and he also made sure that the workers he placed in jobs lived up to the standards asked of all employees. "There was one black guy who I knew had been late three times, and I asked his boss what would happen if a white man had been late three times, and he said he would have fired him," Bell says. "So I told him to make sure he fired that black man, and I let the other black workers know about it, too."

Mortenson's Nelson agrees that Coors Field went well but says, "Bill Bell didn't do that alone."

Once Coors Field was done, Mortenson helped Bell start Mosaic, a company that could consult for Mortenson and other contractors. Bell says he was looking forward to working with that company as work began on the Pepsi Center. "I've been waiting years for that to start," Bell says.

In fact, the project was delayed so long that he began looking forward to the next potential sports venue: the new Broncos stadium. He says he decided to work with PCL Construction on preparing a Broncos bid because he thinks the company is seriously committed to having a diverse workforce. He says he noticed quite a few minorities working in the corporate headquarters.

Bell says he figured that Mortenson might cut him out of Broncos work, which he hoped wouldn't happen, but he was prepared in case it did. He says he was not prepared for the idea of being cut off from the Pepsi Center job.

"The Pepsi Center is a project," Bell says. "The Broncos stadium is not even a project yet."

That's where Nelson disagrees. "They are directly related," Nelson says. "You can't separate one part of your business from another part." Nelson says his fear is that Bell could learn valuable insider information and share it with PCL as that company prepares its bid. "I think Bill closed his eyes to those issues," Nelson says.

Bell says his fear is that his firing has more to do with his aggressive stance on hiring minorities.

"Bill is uniquely able to do what he does, and there aren't a lot of other people out there who can do it," says Michael Hancock, executive vice president of the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver. Hancock says he is willing to give the company the benefit of the doubt on motive, but it won't matter in the real world. "They won't have somebody of Bill's caliber to fill the void," Hancock says.

Nelson says the company will continue to strive for success with minority employees at the Pepsi Center. "This doesn't diminish our commitment at all," he says.

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Scott C. Yates