Thursday, January 27, 2011

RACIAL CHARGES, UNPAID BILLS: Dog Columbia-bound developer

Part two of a series on P&Z approved Campus Crest Communities 

COLUMBIA, 1/25/11  (Beat Byte) --  Lawsuits from former employees alleging racism, unpaid contractors, and angry student tenants are in the baggage Campus Crest Communities carries on the way to a Feb. 7 Columbia City Council meeting that may green light the student housing developer.   Columbia Planning and Zoning commissioners unanimously recommended the firm's 632-bedroom student apartment project on Grindstone Parkway and Rock Quarry Road last week.  

"When something sounds too good to be true, it usually is," University of South Alabama Vanguard newspaper editors wrote in a Nov. 2007 editorial about Campus Crest.  "The stories of broken promises, delayed openings, and initial unfavorable living conditions were not just being told at the University of South Alabama.  Similar stories were also being told by students at Abilene, Texas, and Ellensburg, Wash.  Now, lawsuits can be added to this list."

Recent litigation against Campus Crest reportedly includes a lease-misrepresentation class action and lawsuits graphically illustrating a racially- and sexually-charged workplace plaintiffs say became intolerable.  Unpaid contractors have filed dozens of liens in cities nationwide, over payment practices some call "unusual" and "widespread."

White Like Me

Campus Crest officials directed staff members to "hire predominantly young, white women," Charlotte, N.C.-based attorney Jennifer Sharpe alleges on behalf of former Campus Crest managers Nicole McAuliffe,  Heather McCormack and Tammy Hughes Brown in 2010 lawsuits variously filed in state and federal court.  "We have Southern investors; they do not like for us to hire blacks.  Once you hire an African American, you never can get rid of them because they think they are so entitled," are among reasons plaintiffs claim company officials gave for discriminatory practices. 

After she hired a black female at the Charlotte office, McCormack claims one of her superiors asked, "Who hired the black girl with the red hair?" later pressuring McCormack to terminate the employee.

The discrimination didn't stop with rhetoric, descending into theatre of the absurd on several occasions, Sharpe writes.  Company officials directed her clients "to provide photographs taken from the Facebook or MySpace pages of all applicants recommended for employment to ensure the applicants were not African-American or too old." 

Because one applicant "sounded black," and "had an African-American-sounding first name," Campus Crest officials allegedly flew him to corporate headquarters "to determine his race," Sharpe alleges.  "As a result of these discriminatory hiring practices, qualified men and women over the age of forty (40), as well as qualified African American men and women, were excluded from employment in favor of less-qualified, younger white women and men." 

Life at the office was just as outlandish, the plaintiffs allege, with a company investor referring to African-Americans as "Indians" and saying in a board of directors' meeting that occupancy levels were down because Campus Crest had hired too many "Indians." 

Campus Crest CEO Ted Rollins allegedly told plaintiffs that a black property manager was running down a section of his apartments by "throwing out his chicken grease at night."  Plaintiff Tammy Hughes-Brown says in her complaint that Rollins would routinely mimic black men, insisting that he sounded like comedian Bernie Mac

About the claims, blogger Roger Shuler wrote in December, Wall Street Darling Faces Discrimination Charges  and How Far Will One Company Go to Avoid Hiring Blacks?

Company responses were not immediately available.

Unpaid bills and contractor hardships

Initially thrilled by the prospect of such a large client coming to town, several small town contractors later reported getting stiffed. 

Nearly $600,000 in delinquent bills alarmed contractors in Wichita who helped construct a 192-unit Campus Crest project, the Wichita Eagle and Wichita Business Journal reported in 2008 and 2009. 

Campus Crest construction director Brian Sharpe said administrative glitches and rushed construction deadlines caused the late payments, assuring reporters that his firm would faithfully pay up. 

"An investigation by The Daily Sentinel found that Nacogdoches, Texas and area contractors remained unpaid for months after completing construction work," that city's newspaper reported in 2008.   "The Sentinel found 17 liens totaling more than $1.5 million filed in the Nacogdoches county clerk's office against Campus Crest from October 2007 until February of this year, and dozens of additional liens filed against the company in other counties in Texas, New Mexico, Alabama, Georgia, Colorado and Washington."

Though contractors eventually released many of the liens, "extended periods of nonpayment have put financial pressure on subcontractors who performed work for the construction arm of Campus Crest." 

"Inadequate funding and site work complicated by inclement weather," were among reasons Campus Crest co-founder Michael Hartnett cited for the slow payments.  He also denied a pattern of non-payment, claiming that liens are common in construction.

True enough.  But some Nacogdoches-area contractors found Campus Crest's practices "unorthodox, disreputable" and unusually widespread.  "Everyone had trouble with Campus Crest," pool contractor Danny Adkins, who filed his own $14,140 lien against the firm, told the Daily Sentinel.  After an agreed-upon 4-month payment plan, Campus Crest still hadn't paid him. 

"After this happened to me, I did a background check on them and realized that this is their ongoing method of operation," another contractor told the Daily Sentinel.  "In every city they have built in, they have swindled people and caused hardships."

The Campus Crest Controversy

Part One
Part Five

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