Black caucus seeks to intervene in discrimination lawsuit

Wednesday, December 15th 1999, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) -- A group of black legislators announced plans Wednesday to intervene in a lawsuit challenging an Oklahoma law that helps minorities land state contracts. State Rep. Don Ross and the four other members of the Black Caucus have retained legal counsel with privately raised funds to help defend the Oklahoma Minority Business Enterprise Assistance Act.

"The caucus will offer a vigorous defense to demonstrate such programs are constitutional," said Ross, D-Tulsa. "Oklahoma's equal opportunity provisions are designed to set goals to eliminate discrimination and meets the Supreme Court test as a `compelling state interest."'

Ross believes the lawsuit is part of a nationwide effort to eliminate affirmative action programs. But Edward White, attorney for the plaintiffs, said the case has no ties to any national group. It is an attempt to get rid of a program he says is unconstitutional. "They're trying to do a fine thing," White said, "but they're doing it unconstitutionally and they've got to fix it."

The lawsuit seeks class-action status. It was filed by three Oklahoma construction firms that allege their bids on state projects were rejected on basis of race. They cite the 1987 act, which gives minority businesses a 5 per cent preference in bidding on state projects when less than 10 pe rcent of funds expended on state contracts have been awarded to minorities. If the minority-owned business makes the low bid with the 5 per cent factored in, it receives the contract.

Ross said the law tends to benefit American Indian-owned businesses most and that black-owned firms account for only a small portion of the bids. State Rep. Opio Toure, D-Oklahoma City, considers the lawsuit a neffort "to roll back the progress of the civil rights movement." "Our statute is narrowly tailored to meet a constitutional permissible goal and that is to address discrimination," he said.

David Riggs, the lawyer representing the caucus, said Attorney General Drew Edmondson is seeking to have the case dismissed in federal court in Oklahoma's Western District. The caucus will file to intervene in the case or file a friend of the court brief, Riggs said. White alleges the law is not only unconstitutional but also has been abused by at least one firm posing as a minority-owned business. In that case, the bid of the business receiving the contract was $107,000 higher than that made by his client. "This isn't political with me," White said. "The law is clear and this statute is clearly unconstitutional."