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Ten years and still waiting to be paid

Ex-cons who were shortchanged on city contract work say they are owed money.

These are just some of the men still waiting after 10 years to be paid for work they did for the city. (Photo by Vernon Ray)
These are just some of the men still waiting after 10 years to be paid for work they did for the city. (Photo by Vernon Ray)Read more

THE WORKERS WERE screwed twice.

First by a politically connected businessman with millions in city contracts.

Then by the city.

When I first met Vearn Hart, he was headed out of Philadelphia in a packed U-Haul to find work in Michigan.

"I've had it," he said, as he leaned against the truck holding all his belongings. "You try to do the right thing and this is how this city repays you."

It's hard enough being an ex-con. But when Hart was released in 2003 after 22 years in prison, he was ready to put in the work.

And he worked plenty hard for Garnett Littlepage, whose company LP Group 2 hired ex-cons to clean up blight around the city. At a discount, it turns out.

It's a long, complicated story that dates back to 2003 and the administration of former Mayor John Street. But it highlights timely issues about whether the city is serious about enforcing the prevailing wage law or any laws meant to protect workers - or if they're just all for show.

By this ridiculous account, it's a show.

Years ago, Littlepage, who holds numerous lucrative state and city contracts - his company Scotlandyard Security supplies security guards to several municipal buildings, including City Hall - started the nonprofit Connection Training Services to help disadvantaged workers. It was his "life's mission," he has said.

In 2003, he started a construction company with an associate and put some of the ex-offenders to work on multiple multimillion-dollar city contracts - including demolition and stucco work under the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, Street's anti-blight program.

What a giver, right? Except not long after, the city's Labor Standards Unit cited Littlepage for not paying workers a prevailing wage, not providing health insurance and filing bogus payroll reports.

At the time, Littlepage was indignant. He argued that his company was exempt under another city law because the workers were just trainees. He appealed and lost.

"Nobody is going to pay a black man or Hispanic man with a fourth-grade education whatever the prevailing wage is if he hasn't had an opportunity to be properly trained," he said in a 2006 Inquirer story.

The city was supposed to hold his payments until he paid the workers. But that didn't happen.

Littlepage was paid in full. The workers were not.

In all, the workers are owed about $188,000. For some, it's just a few hundred dollars. For others, like Hart and Vernon Ray - who says he was hired by Littlepage to train the ex-cons - it's upward of $20,000.

This is life-changing money. Councilman James Kenney knows that, which is why he's been "asking, cajoling, pressing" anyone in the city to get them paid.

Mark Zecca knows it, too. He's a former city attorney who represented the Labor Standards Unit and is now running for city controller.

"The city didn't do what it was supposed to do," said Zecca. "The city took the money that the city was legally supposed to hold for the workers and paid out that money to [Littlepage]. This is reverse Robin Hood."

Fast-forward to the Nutter administration, and the city says the issue is closed. "The bottom line here is that the city has paid all of the money that LP Group 2 is entitled to under its contract, and if there's a controversy between the former employees and employer, that's between them," said city spokesman Mark McDonald.

Littlepage didn't return numerous messages left at the Scotlandyard offices. But does anyone really expect him to suddenly step up and do right by these guys? He's had 10 years to do that.

"If they pool their resources, surely they could get some [legal] representation," McDonald said. "They have access to the courts; that's one of the geniuses of the political system."

There is so much that doesn't add up here, and I'm not just talking about a startling lack of empathy on the part of an administration that has gone on record as saying that helping ex-offenders is a priority. Mayor Nutter even set up an office to help them.

These guys don't have money for lawyers. The city knows that. Littlepage knows that.

So why doesn't the city step up and penalize a contractor who screwed over his employees, and who obviously has such disregard for city rules?

Hit him in the pocket, just as he's done to a group of guys who worked their tails off for him. Withhold contracts. Deduct what he owes these workers from his current contracts. Pay them. The city's done it in the past.

It's never too late to do the right thing.

When I checked in on Hart, he was working. He has a full-time job at Ford and a part-time job as a custodian at a welfare-to-work program. "Anything it takes" to make ends meet, he said.

Littlepage, meanwhile, continues to thrive.

In 2011, U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah announced that Connection Training Services, the very program that took advantage of these workers, was receiving a grant worth more than a million bucks to "improve the long-term labor market prospect for ex-offenders."

Phone: 215-854-5943

On Twitter: @NotesFromHel