Activist falls from grace into an indictment

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Who is Omar Shareef, and why has the state’s attorney indicted him for theft and forgery? It depends on whom you ask.

Ask Chicago schools CEO Paul Vallas, and he’ll tell you that Shareef is a “shakedown artist” who’s being prosecuted because he tried to defraud the school system on a small contracting job.

Ask Shareef, and he’ll tell you he’s an activist, and that his indictment is payback for a political embarrassment he delivered to Vallas a year and a half ago.

Shareef is the president and founder of the African American Contractors Association (AACA), an 11-year-old activist group that lobbies local governments and businesses to give black contractors a fair share of the work on their construction projects. The group claims a membership of about 200 black-owned firms, mostly small ones, and has worked with the City of Chicago, Cook County and the Illinois Institute of Technology, among others, to help members get work.

AACA has no full-time staff. The organization’s phone number is Shareef’s pager. He runs the organization when he’s not running his business, a contracting firm called Universal Services. Lately, he says, he’s spent more time organizing than contracting.

About two years ago, as the Reform Board’s capital improvement program was getting off the ground, Shareef led a protest at board headquarters, demanding more work for black contractors and workers. Board officials invited the protesters inside for a meeting and later offered AACA a $50,000 contract to work as a consultant on the board’s affirmative action program. Shareef brought some ideas for helping small contractors take advantage of the jobs available through the School Board, and he brought his membership list.

Vallas started paging him to talk about the board’s programs and how to promote them, and soon the pair was teaming on other projects as well. When Shareef told Vallas about a parade he was organizing, Vallas arranged for several floats. The next day, the schools CEO brought his kids to a follow-up event. “They stayed all day,” Shareef recalls. “His sons were playing with my sons.”

Soon, a batch of small jobs—each under $10,000—was made available to AACA members to compete for. As an AACA member, Shareef took on a few as well, wearing his Universal Services hat. One was repairing a ceiling and replacing some ceramic tiles at Dett Elementary. Shareef bid $6,038 for the job, got a verbal OK from U.S. Equities—the firm that oversaw small repair jobs for Dett—and started work in November.

Around the same time Shareef’s company was doing the Dett job, he was helping the board prepare for a workshop where small contractors would be able to meet representatives from the general contracting firms that ran the board’s major rehab and construction projects. Vallas and Reform Board President Gery Chico were scheduled to speak.

But Shareef says he started to have doubts about the workshop. He looked at the lists of staffers coming from the general contracting firms, and he didn’t think they were real decision makers. “They were sending their lackeys,” he says. “Those people couldn’t give out no work.” He started to think that the whole thing would just be a show for the media, so that Vallas could make his appearance, seeming to be fighting for minority contractors, without really accomplishing much.

He brought his concerns to Vallas, who shrugged them off. Two days before the event, Shareef hit Vallas with an ultimatum: Call off the event, or I’ll march a picket line outside—then see what your news coverage will look like. “You do what you’ve gotta do, Omar,” Shareef says Vallas told him. “And we’ll do what we’ve gotta do.”

‘That sounds like me’

Asked about the exchange, Vallas says, “That sounds like me. I’m not going to let someone intimidate me.”

The event was held, drawing hundreds of contractors. Vallas and Chico spoke. Shareef brought a picket line. No reporters came. And Vallas never paged Shareef again. AACA didn’t get any more small repair jobs to hand out, and the group’s consulting contract was not renewed.

Diane Minor, the board’s purchasing chief, says Shareef’s fallout with the board is regrettable. “It was a chance for AACA to really put themselves at the forefront of representing African- American contractors,” she says, “and things happened that were not to the benefit of either party. … We would have liked to have seen more people coming into the programs” as a result of AACA’s consulting work.

Meanwhile, Shareef was waiting to be paid for his company’s work at Dett. He waited for months. U.S. Equities asked for certified payrolls, which Omar submitted in April. He eventually got $3,019 in the highly unusual form of a personal check from the senior supervisor at U.S. Equities. Then he found out he was being investigated.

In August, Chico announced that Shareef had grossly overcharged the board, and that the board would seek to disqualify Universal Services from doing business with the schools. The most serious charge was that Shareef had padded the certified payrolls. In January, a hearing officer found against Shareef, barring him from board contracts for 18 months. According to a board investigator, the job should have cost no more than $2,000.

Then, in early March, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office announced that Shareef was among the first seven indictments coming out of a joint program with the board, which is paying the prosecutor’s office $300,000 to prosecute any fraud in the capital improvement program. Most of the crimes were small-time cases involving kickbacks, bribes and embezzlement. Shareef’s involves the smallest amount of money, less than $6,000. He is accused of theft by deception, attempted theft and forgery—all felonies carrying two- to five-year sentences.

Shareef doesn’t say that $6,000 was the best price the School Board could have gotten for the Dett repair job, and he doesn’t insist that the payrolls he submitted were completely accurate. However, he maintains that he is innocent of theft.

The legal question is what kind of agreement Shareef established with U.S. Equities. Contractors and property owners typically enter into one of two kinds of agreements, one called lump-sum, the other time-and-materials. Shareef says he gave U.S. Equities a lump-sum bid, which they accepted— meaning they were agreeing to pay him the price named in his bid; if the job were to cost Shareef more than expected, he would be out money, and if it cost less, he would get an extra profit. He contends U.S. Equities later instructed him to pad his payrolls, to help them justify their own billings to the School Board.

Officials from U.S. Equities referred CATALYST questions on the issue to the School Board. According to the hearing officer’s report, they claim that all repair contractors worked on a time-and-materials basis—meaning that the board and its contractors established rates for labor and materials, plus overhead and profit—not a predetermined price for a given job.

Shareef submitted a lump-sum proposal to U.S. Equities, but at his hearing, a U.S. Equities supervisor testified that she considered it an estimate, not a bid for a contract. Shareef says he got a verbal OK from U.S. Equities, so no paperwork exists to clarify the matter. U.S. Equities produced no documents to dispute his claim.

The hearing officer’s report does not address Shareef’s claim that U.S. Equities asked him to falsify the payrolls.

Shareef hasn’t been consistent in telling his story. For instance, one of the workers listed on his payrolls is Anthony Taylor, Shareef’s own birth name, or “slave name,” as he puts it. But Shareef told a board investigator that Taylor was an acquaintance, someone he had known only for a year or so. He also has claimed that the payrolls were accurate, even though none of the other three workers listed can be found and he has no cancelled paychecks; he says he paid the guys in cash, and they’re all having personal problems that make them hard to reach.

Vallas says he finds Shareef’s claim of political persecution laughable. “Ha ha ha, very funny,” he says. “Sure. And the earth is flat, and all the stars in the heavens revolve around the earth. Sure. And everything’s political. … I mean, that would be a good defense in court.”

Shareef’s first court date is June 5.

P. R. campaign

Shareef says he’s already having trouble with the State’s Attorney’s Office. After reading about his indictment in the newspaper, he says, he waited for official notification to arrive by mail. When none came, he and his attorney sought it out at Criminal Court, to no avail. Several weeks later, Shareef says, he showed up in court for another case in which he is a defendant, and the judge handed him his CPS indictment notice. Shareef says four well-dressed men then came “out of nowhere” and asked the judge to revoke his bond; the judge denied their request. The State’s Attorney’s office declined to comment on Shareef’s allegations.

Now he’s mobilizing his friends to save his reputation, making the rounds of black newspapers and radio stations, and printing posters for his cause. Meanwhile, Shareef says he feels burned personally by Vallas. “You can’t trust everybody that’s laughing with you,” he says, recalling good times he shared with the CEO. “Like, they’re saying, ‘You’re the funniest man I ever met. Oh, what is that knife in your back?'”