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Payday Mayday

Christopher Smith

Alanis Security is headquartered in a cheerless, gray five-story building with black windows and dark hallways on NW 36th Street in Doral, hulking inconspicuously amid a lonely stretch of god-forsaken strip malls, fast-food joints, and warehouses. Alanis's fourth-floor suite has the feel of a check-cashing shack, and that's appropriate because this is where company workers come twice a month to get paid — or, as is sometimes the case, to get screwed.

On a recent Saturday, an Alanis employee, a Haitian-American security guard in his early forties who works at a county facility in Miami Beach, sits in his car in the Alanis parking lot, tucking the last bite of a McChicken sandwich into his mouth before venturing inside for his paycheck. He's dressed in his Saturday clothes — jeans and a half-buttoned polyester shirt — because payday is Saturday, always.

"They say it's so not everyone can cash their check at once," he explains. "I go first thing on Monday, so usually I don't have a problem. But some people, yes — they don't get their money."

Indeed, according to this employee and dozens more, payday is something of a free-for-all at Alanis, with workers literally racing each other to the nearest check-cashing operation. They'd rather take a cut there than wait until Monday, when the banks open, and when the checks start bouncing. "When pay time came around, [Alanis] didn't have enough money to pay the checks," affirms a former high-ranking administrative employee. "We would actually escape at lunchtime and run to the bank immediately to cash the checks so that we would have money in our pockets.... From one paycheck to another, you could guarantee that at least one person would not get paid."

Nobody has kept track of how many times Alanis checks have bounced, but add up the complaints collected by the county's Department of Small Business Development (SBD), and the number is likely more than a hundred. And, employees say, the checks are still bouncing.

Under various names, Alanis Security has been operating in Miami-Dade since the late Nineties. Owned by Nigerian-born Augustine Ajagbe, the company has run afoul of county rules for as long as it's been in business. Records of misdeeds go back to at least 2001, when Alanis held a $12-million security contract at Miami International Airport. That year an employee, a low-level airport guard who earned $9.50 an hour without benefits, approached the SBD, complaining he had been chronically underpaid. (New Times made several attempts to reach Ajagbe via phone and e-mail, but he did not respond.)

SBD investigators were quickly inundated by other employee complaints alleging underpayment, nonpayment, and bogus healthcare benefits. In one case, a worker's "insurance" plan amounted to a discount medicine card, according to SBD investigator Priscilla Coq. It turned out several employees had been given similar cards. One complained she had tried to use hers at a hospital but that the hospital refused to take it. In another case, Coq got a close look at the card, which stated, "This is not insurance."

Asked to submit payroll information as well as proof of his employee insurance benefits plan — without which he was required to pay an additional $1.44 per hour — Ajagbe stalled for two months, claiming his workers were not covered by the living wage ordinance. The county ultimately rejected that argument, and Ajagbe was made to pay back wages to nine employees. And just like that, as if the issue had been an outstanding parking ticket, the numerous cases against Alanis were closed without further action.

The same year Ajagbe dodged trouble with his company's airport security contract, Alanis got a windfall. When a legal ruling forced the county to scrap an affirmative action program for contractors, the decision created a vacuum in security posts and spurred a correspondingly shoddy search for businesses to fill it. "We did not go through our usual process of evaluation; that takes a considerable amount of time and looks at every single detail involved in getting the absolute best quality," admits Miriam Singer, director of procurement management.

Instead the county issued an emergency contract to the lowest bidders. Among them: Alanis Security.

On April 1, 2005 — while under investigation again for its shady healthcare package — Alanis was awarded a six-month, $2.7-million contract with the General Services Administration (GSA) to guard 46 facilities, ranging from Kristi House, a rape crisis treatment center for children, to water and sewer facilities containing potentially lethal chemicals. The contract — originally intended to be temporary — was renewed six months later and has been renewed every six months since.

No sooner had Alanis taken up its new post than employee complaints of underpayment resumed. On October 6, 2006, the SBD received a letter from a guard who claimed paychecks were regularly bouncing. "Here is what is going on with Alanis," the guard wrote. "Someone is playing with the money. We, the employees, are suffering." Within days, SBD compliance officer Sheila Hoilett reported in a phone log: "I received a telephone complaint today that ... some [Alanis] employees' checks are not honored at the bank. The caller said the bank does not give any reason, only that they should talk to their employer." The same day, Hoilett received an e-mail from GSA security supervisor Donald Casebolt, saying he had been contacted by yet another Alanis employee whose check had bounced. "Please contact her ASAP," he wrote. "She is desperate."

 

By September 2007, Alanis appeared to be heading toward a meltdown. "It was confirmed by Alanis ... that checks are bouncing again," an alarmed Casebolt wrote September 11 to GSA chief of security Daniel Payne. "Chief, this is becoming an inexcusable cycle," he continued, "and it is beginning to seriously affect the security of Miami-Dade County.... During the last phase [of check-bouncing], Alanis guards and field supervisors began calling out, refusing to come in to fill vacant shifts."

Despite his company's troubles, in October, while Alanis checks were bouncing left and right, Ajagbe threw a four-day birthday party for himself at the Doral Golf Resort & Spa. The fete was described on TrendyAfrica.com, an online magazine-for-hire offering "international corporate event coverage." The site portrays an event of epic proportions: Feasts were attended by more than 1,000 guests; Ajagbe flew to Europe simply to buy specially tailored clothes for the party. "It could best be described as a marathon weekend of Carnival-like celebration," the site declared.

Meanwhile, the SBD seemed unwilling to punish Alanis for the rubber checks. Between September and December 2007, the company was issued a mere two notices of violation for failure to pay employees, and was fined nothing. Instead Ajagbe was offered "an opportunity," SBE director Penelope Townsley wrote, "to come in and receive training in proper payroll preparation" that September, and in November, yet another "opportunity to come in to receive training for compliance."

Ajagbe blamed the county for his apparent inability to pay employees, complaining the GSA was withholding payments owed him. This was true — but only because Ajagbe had failed to pay a required $204,500 performance bond.

For a moment, it seemed Ajagbe had finally gone too far. On November 21, procurement director Singer sent Ajagbe a notice: "You are hereby notified that your contract will be terminated," she wrote, "upon approval by the Board of County Commissioners." But the contract never went before the commission, and it wasn't terminated.

"We were going to notify the board," Singer says. "That's when the bond appeared."

As for the years of bounced checks, the county seems to have taken the position that as long as Ajagbe eventually pays his employees — too bad if it's after the bills are due — he hasn't underpaid anybody. After county payments to Alanis had resumed, Singer points out, SBD employees conducted interviews to make sure the last paychecks had gone through. Indeed all the employees questioned said they had. But New Times's examination of the interviews revealed that although all workers had been able to cash their most recent paychecks, at least 24 of the 29 employees said they'd had at least one check bounce in the past — seven or eight in some cases.

Although Singer has downplayed Alanis's misdeeds, there is reason to believe she and her department are counting the minutes until the company is ousted from the contract. For one thing, Singer readily admits the emergency contract under which Alanis has been operating for two and a half years was never supposed to have lasted so long. "We never anticipated [it] would last beyond a year," she says. "Basically we've been waiting for a while to award a successor contract.... The only thing I can say is that Alanis is not being recommended."

Indeed, in January 2007, Singer's department issued the results of the search to the county commission. It recommended three companies; among the vendors "not recommended for award" was Alanis.

But when the recommendations were presented to the county commission in June, Commissioners Dorrin Rolle and Barbara Jordan were furious that several of the companies rejected were black-owned businesses. "This ain't nothing but a drive-by shooting," complained Rolle, who mentioned only Alanis by name.

So angry were the two commissioners that Singer, GSA director Wendy Norris, and GSA security chief Dan Payne were called to the podium. "We looked at this process long and hard," Norris said. "In a post-9/11 era, we felt very strongly that quality needed to be considered."

"I don't think there is a member of this community that doesn't put quality first," Jordan snapped. "If there is a question about performance, we need to give that entity an opportunity to take corrective action ... and not throw the baby out with the bath water."

 

When Payne — himself African-American — stepped to the podium and offered to elaborate on the "questions about performance," Rolle cut him off. "Not right now," Rolle said. "I ain't gonna change my vote."

The commission vote was deferred; Alanis remains. Eventually, Singer insists, a new contract will be approved and Alanis will not be a part of it. Until then, she says, her department is keeping a close eye on the company.

Just last week, New Times was contacted by yet another Alanis employee, who declined to give his name.

"The checks are bouncing again," he said.


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